Climate change won’t be kind to Puget Sound

From the editorial board

Floodwaters surround a home built on a raised foundation north of Shelton on Nov. 13. Climate change is expected to make flooding more common in future years.
Floodwaters surround a home built on a raised foundation north of Shelton on Nov. 13. Climate change is expected to make flooding more common in future years. Associated Press file, November

The Paris climate summit has dramatized the need for a better global strategy to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The leaders of Western Europe have been acting decisively to move their nations from fossil fuels to clean power. The United States has been half-hearted about global warming, and China and India have only recently begun to step up their efforts against it.

As it happens, the Pacific Northwest is one of the regions of the earth likely to escape the worst consequences if the international effort fails. By global standards, our climate will remain relatively temperate. Sea levels will rise on the Pacific Coast and in Puget Sound, but we will largely escape the cataclysmic inundations and droughts that could drive perhaps hundreds of millions from their homes elsewhere in the world.

Still, Western Washington will be affected. University of Washington researchers have been trying to anticipate the effects, and they’ve released some preliminary predications in a new report, “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound.” It offers a glimpse of what the Puget Sound region will look like as the rest of the planet heats up.

Some key findings:

▪ Summers will be hotter, wild fires will erupt more often west of the Cascades, and droughts will be more common.

▪ The Cascade Mountains will receive a lot less snow. Last winter’s unprecedented snow-drought – which posed a grave threat to Central Washington agriculture – could become a regular pattern. Hydroelectric power could become scarcer.

▪ Yet the region will see more torrential rains and floods. Landslides will be more common. Homes built on flood plains face a wet future. Heaven knows what will happen to Tacoma’s Stadium Bowl; it already turns into a lake in heavy rains.

▪ Sea levels could rise sharply over the course of this century. Low areas – including downtown Olympia – could be flooded.

The study should get us thinking. Some safeguards can be taken now. Bridges over flood-prone rivers, for example, can be built higher and wider. Levies can be strengthened.

Anacortes officials had the foresight to factor higher flood levels into the design their new $65 million water treatment plant; sensitive electronics, for example, have been positioned above flood levels. All cities and counties should be looking ahead when issuing building permits and making land-use decisions.

What’s frustrating is how little one region or one state can do to prevent the worst-case climate scenarios.

Climate scientists believe that some projected warming – with accompanying wilder weather – is no longer preventable. But concerted international action could still prevent catastrophic impacts headed our way after the middle of the 21st century.

This region would fare better than most if the worst arrives. But the Puget Sound region wouldn’t be the same; its mild weather would give way to more violent winters, and long, blistering summer heat waves. We have reason to hope that the Paris summit produces real action.