Coastal resiliency is getting a lot of attention on the Washington coast these days. Last year the Ruckelshaus Center conducted a “Washington Coast Resilience Assessment” and published a report in May. Recently, the Washington Coastal Marine Advisory Council (WCMAC) began reviewing that report and is in the process of considering what recommendations they can take action on. The term “coastal resiliency” however is a bit fuzzy and different people may have very different ideas about its meaning.

One thing is generally agreed upon, however: resiliency is a good thing and we want the coast to be as resilient as possible. But in what ways specifically? Today we’re going to break down three different subject areas that fall under the umbrella of coastal resiliency. Before discussing the action that can be taken to increase resiliency, we’ll focus on the threats and vulnerabilities. The intent is to establish a basic understanding of the issue so that we can take a deeper dive into the Ruckelhaus report and WCMAC activities in the near future.

Physical Hazards

The first area of interest when discussing resilience often centers on hazards and physical processes such as coastal flooding, erosion, Sea Level Rise (SLR), the ability of communities to survive major storms and the dreaded cascadia subduction event. We obviously hope that our coastal communities can handle these hazards without loss of life or infrastructure. Smart planning and management can help mitigate the impacts of coastal erosion, SLR, and major weather events. In reality, these threats are often connected as powerful storm systems produce the extreme conditions that cause coastal flooding and erosion: heavy rainfall, huge waves, and storm surges, which can be exacerbated by extreme tides and rising sea levels.

Rapid erosion in front of condos in Westport, caused by a series of strong storms in 2015 and 2016

The threat and potential impacts of a major earthquake offshore, often referred to as “the big one,” is especially frightening and weighs heavy on the minds of coastal residents who understand that it is inevitable but have no idea when it will happen. It is never far from thought and panic can be quickly induced by an unexplained rumbling, which could be caused by supersonic jets creating a sonic boom or even exploding meteorites. Though it is difficult to predict when it may happen, scientists have said that there is nearly a 40% chance for a major earthquake in the next 50 years. The potential damage for such an event are equally difficult to predict but it is generally agreed that it will be catastrophic. A 2015 article from the New Yorker described this extensively and caught the attention of most Washington residents. And new maps recently released by DNR and NOAA show inundation scenarios that are worse than previously predicted.

Biological Resources and Ocean Chemistry

Other areas of focus during discussions of coastal resiliency include the marine ecosystems that border the coast. Anyone who has spent a good amount of time on the Pacific coast knows how varied ocean conditions can be. One day it could be warm and sunny with small clean waves and the next it could be cold and stormy with raging waves. The conditions below the surface, such as temperature and dissolved oxygen, are equally dynamic and vary season to season and year to year. Large scale global conditions such as El Niño, La Niña, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation further influence ocean conditions on multi-year scales. Despite all this variability, it is still possible to show that there are general trends that may challenge the resiliency of the marine environment, including warming waters, more frequent algal blooms and hypoxia events, and declining pH, which is referred to as ocean acidification.

When we think about biological resiliency, we are specifically referring to the ability of fish, birds, marine mammals, shellfish, and other organisms down the food chain to survive changing ocean conditions. Like those changing conditions, there is a natural ebb and flow to fish populations, with good years and bad years but there are worrisome signs recently that we might be entering a phase of significant, perhaps permanent, change. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to higher levels in the ocean too and that causes ocean acidification which directly impacts plankton and shellfish. Oyster growers have already had to adapt new techniques to overcome this chemical change and the trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

A NOAA graphic showing the above average surface water temperatures known as “the blob.”

Another striking example of changing conditions is the persistent warm ocean temperatures that were observed in the Pacific Northwest between 2013 and 2016, popularly referred to as “the blob.” This caused considerable havoc up and down the food chain. Algal blooms and hypoxic events increased, forage fish populations declined, resulting in less food for seabirds, salmon and other fish species. As salmon are the primary food for orca whales, they were also under additional stress. At the same time sea star wasting syndrome began to spread up and down the coast killing off an amazing number of sea stars, who are a formidable nearshore predator. In their absence coastal ecology had a significant shift with an explosion of sea urchins with a resulting decline in kelp forests, which is one of their food sources. This is troubling as kelp forests are one of the most biologically diverse systems on the Pacific Coast.

In short, the resiliency of the ocean ecosystem is being put to the test. Hopefully, the disappearance of “the blob” will make way for more normal ocean conditions, improved salmon populations, and the return of a healthy sea star community that will feast on sea urchins and allow kelp forests to recover. Unfortunately, ocean acidification is going to persist until we begin to curb carbon emissions, and that isn’t happening fast enough.

Communities and Economics

While we are concerned with the physical and biological challenges we are seeing on the coast, we are also worried about the human communities that must deal with these impacts. These communities are directly tied to marine resources. When fishing is good, they thrive, when fishing is poor, they struggle. When the economy is good, tourism booms, when the economy sputters, visitors decline. This variability can put considerable stress on the people that live on the coast especially when all the bad news stacks up.

Commercial and recreational fishing are critical to coastal economies.

Even in a thriving economy like we have right now, the prosperity of coastal communities lags behind. While unemployment nationally is at an amazingly low 4.1%, Clallam, Jefferson, Grays Harbor, and Pacific counties are at 8.0%, 7.5%, 7.9% and 8.1%, respectively. Coastal residents in general also have below average household incomes, higher rates of obesity and less access to quality medical care.

And remember all those physical hazards we covered earlier? They also deal with those on a regular bases. While this all paints a dire picture it isn’t all bad. Living by the ocean is a truly special lifestyle with easy access to many forms of recreation, quiet communities and a slower pace. Residents are literally and figuratively tied to the ocean. Their work and play depend on the tides, and their prosperity depends on the ocean’s bounty.

Coastal residents also get to enjoy easy access to Washington’s best waves.

Current Efforts

That should provide a little context to the discussion of coastal resiliency on the Washington coast but there is plenty more to cover. Make sure to check back in the coming months as we will dive deeper into the activities that are underway to address the resiliency challenges. Specifically, we will review the coastal resiliency assessment from the Ruckelshaus Center and efforts of the WCMAC to take action on recommendations from that assessment.