Is Golden Gardens Park slipping into the Sound?

By Christy Wolyniak

Sandy beaches and majestic views of the Puget Sound attract crowds to Golden Gardens with every cloud break. However, the ever-increasing rise in sea levels might someday water down Ballard’s sink-your-feet-in coastline.

According to sea-level measurements, global sea levels rise an inch per decade. As carbon emissions and climate temperatures increase, these levels are projected to be even more dramatic for coastal areas in coming years.

Organizations on the forefront of managing these destination beaches find resources and information on the subject limited. As for a sure-fire action plan in the case of sea level rise, Seattle Parks and Recreation Manager Joelle Hammerstad says they do not have one.

“We’ve only become aware of what sea-level impacts might be in the last few years. If sea levels rise, (Golden Gardens) will certainly be impacted, but it is just a beach, so even if sea levels were to rise two or three feet, it would just make usable beach smaller. There are no buildings or facilities that close to the water line,” she said.

Washington’s 3,085 miles of coastal shoreline contributes to the beauty and attractiveness of the Pacific Northwest. According to a 2008 report by the International Panel on Climate Change (an international program supported by the United Nations), by year 2100, sea levels are expected to rise by seven to 23 inches.

“...Facilities are being located and entire communities are being developed without adequate consideration of the potential costs of protecting or relocating them from sea-level rise related erosion, flooding and storm damage,” noted a report by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers at the Washington State Department of Ecology are studying the climate effects and the changing nature of particular bodies of water in an effort to predict future sea level rise.

“Right now we’re tracking what sea level rise may look like through the King Tides Project- a local effort and then a global effort. Each year natural tides are measured. The King Tides - when the sun and moon get in proper alignment with the earth, are the really high tides,” said Camille St. Onge, Communications Manager for Shorelines and Environmental Assistance at the Washington State Department of Ecology.

“King tides are important. This year they were a +17, which gives you an idea of what sea level rise may look like in the future.”

With swells highest in the winter, a 17-foot tide could wash over some of Washington’s shorelines and homes with beachfront views.

“In the future if sea level rise occurs, we might have higher tides as the norm. Then this is what it would look in terms of property and where is it in relation to businesses and homes,” said St. Onge. “There are a couple of communities (including those in Olympia and Bellingham) that are very active in preparing for that, because they know that if sea level rise occurs, they will need to react.”

One such individual who set his sights for higher ground is University of Washington’s Campus Planner Jeffrey Linn. He studied topographical maps to see how sea level rise might affect his home and those around him.

From this curiosity, Linn fashioned a map called “Islands of Seattle”, painting a picture of what Seattle might look like if sea levels rose by 240 feet, the projected amount if all the earth’s ice sheets melted. With a comical twist, Linn renamed land features such as the Bay of Ballard, Phinney Peninsula, and Archipelago of Bainbridge.

Although it could be years before a rise of this magnitude takes place, researchers do not take these climate changes and the dire effects of carbon use lightly.

“Predicting shoreline retreat, beach loss, cliff retreat, and land loss rates is critical to planning coastal zone management strategies and assessing biological impacts due to habitat change or destruction. Presently, long-term (50 years) coastal planning and decision-making has been done piecemeal, if at all, for the nation’s shoreline (National Research Council, 1990;1995),” noted the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Assessment of Coastal Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise for the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The Coastal Vulnerability Index (CVI) measures risk factors on a national scale to predict how sea level rise will threaten landforms. Several risk factors affect a coastline’s erodibility and sea level rise, including coastal slope, how fast sea level is rising and shoreline erosion rates.

For example, rocky coasts have a very low coastal vulnerability, whereas landforms with sand beaches and coral reefs, such as in Florida, have a very high risk of coastal vulnerability.

Though the Pacific Northwest is not nearly as vulnerable to sea-level rise as the East Coast states, its coastline will still feel an impact is these levels increase dramatically.

Washington’s Department of Ecology provides programs including Coastal Zone Management (CZM) and the Shoreline Management Act, which aims to protect and maintain Seattle’s shorelines and all bodies of water in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The effects of sea level rise and steps to action are still in the beginning stages if existent at all for many organizations. For beachgoers of the future, Golden Gardens’ expanse of sandy frolicking space may be more of a swimming destination than a sunbathing one.

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