Workshop offers look at Grays Harbor of the future

A workshop Tuesday on ocean acidification and rising sea levels offered a peek into Grays Harbor’s potential future, and aimed to start a conversation about turning the challenges of climate change into opportunities.

Brad Warren, director of Global Ocean Health, said he hopes to change the way people think about climate change.

“The language is loss, ‘We’re going to lose this much land,’ ” Warren said. “Well, if you look at this from the ocean point of view, which is where a fair number of people around here make a living, there’s going to be a fair number of opportunities there.”

That change may prove to be a challenge of its own. About 30 people attended the workshop, mostly agency officials joined by a few interested residents and local policymakers. Nearly all had ideas, concerns and questions about climate change, but few were ready to focus on the suggestion of creating new industries, like harvesting underwater plants.

“It’s a beginning. And that’s probably enough,” Warren said. “It will be really interesting to come back and track this conversation as it matures over time. I think it’s really clear that people are ready to think hard about sea level rise, and that’s pretty complicated by itself. And there’s a lot of resistance to thinking about how it interacts with another complicated process” like ocean acidification.

Todd Sandell of the Wild Fish Conservancy offered one tool in increasing that understanding locally. He and Andrew McAninch were initially only researching data on juvenile salmon habitat in the Grays Harbor area.

“It became rapidly apparent … that the elephant in the room that people weren’t really talking about is sea level rise,” Sandell said. “That’s going to undermine a lot of the work that’s been done over past decades, putting in tide gates and things like that.”

In 2012, the conservancy used lidar data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a better model of what climate change could look like on the Harbor.

Sandell and McAninch modeled out to 2100. Compared to Grays Harbor in 1981, when modeling started, the 2100 Grays Harbor will lose 83 percent of its mud flats, have 2.4 times the salt marsh and six times as much irregularly flooded marsh area. Traditional marsh will be 26 times larger.

Forested swamp land showed a 97 percent reduction as a result of sea level rise, Sandell said. Goose and Sand islands would be completely underwater.

Sandell said as salt water penetrates deeper and deeper into the Harbor and into the sloughs, trees may die because they can’t tolerate the salinity. That may lead to further collapse during flooding.

In Willapa Harbor, Sandell said the numerous dikes might lead to good habitats for various sea creatures that like shallow water for about 25 years. After that, he said, the dikes will create more problems than they solve.

“That’s one of the reasons you can’t just build a bunch of dikes and say, ‘We won’t move an inch,’ ” Sandell said. “I wouldn’t want to fight the ocean that much.”

One of the challenges in getting a clear picture of what the Twin Harbors might look like with rising oceans is limited by data. Scientists don’t have a clear picture of what the underwater landscape looks like.

Sandell said the model they used has a vertical error of one to three meters, meaning the elevations they used for their modeling could have some significant variation from where the ground actually is. That translates to some potentially significant differences in the horizontal borders they project. Still, it’s a significant improvement in accuracy over previous models.

Getting clearer and clearer pictures of what’s happening to the habitat around us is the only way we’ll ever start to cope with the many and varied impacts of climate change, Warren said.

“I thought a really important thing somebody brought up today is that the perception of urgency is not really there, around either sea level rise or ocean acidification,” Warren said. “In order to get county governments to address this issue, when they can’t see their own interests at risk now, it’s a really important challenge. I would argue that the challenge there is not that there is no change affecting their interests, nor that that change is not urgent. It’s that we don’t have the observing systems in place to be able to see what’s happening to us.”

Coastline changes may actually present more opportunity for burying carbon.

About 0.5 percent of ocean area roughly matches the carbon absorption of all the world’s forests. Salt marsh buries 10 times as much carbon per acre every year than a Brazilian rainforest, Warren said.

In Asia, harvesting underwater plants that thrive in acidic water is already a $7 billion per year industry, cleaning the water at the same time.

With better information, policy makers will be able to take advantage of opportunities like that, using better planning for coastlines and flood plains.

“People are really intelligent when they can see what’s happening to them. We’re not very intelligent when we can’t see,” he added.


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