ON a cool, foggy August afternoon on Washington’s wild Olympic coast, my 7-year-old daughter, Alex, and 9-year-old son, Nate, wade knee-deep in a wide, calm pool in Mosquito Creek. They have constructed sand castles and an armada of driftwood battleships and carriers with mud-and-stick anti-aircraft guns, river-stone amphibious vehicles, and twig fighter jets.
They will play here until dark, creating an imagined world on their own private wilderness beach.
We’re on a family backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, which protects the longest unbroken stretch of wilderness seashore — 73 miles — remaining in the contiguous United States, and one of the Earth’s largest virgin temperate rain forests. Sitka spruce and Western red cedar soar to 150 feet tall, with diameters of 10 to 15 feet, while Douglas fir and Western hemlock climb to well over 200 feet.
If my kids return someday with their own children, they may find this spot has become ocean.
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As the full devastation from Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast becomes clear — widespread power outages and transportation shutdowns lasting weeks, thousands of homes destroyed, billions of dollars in cleanup costs, and neighborhoods that may never be habitable again — we are getting a window onto the fast-approaching future of coastal communities. And the outlook is just as scary for our national parks, like Olympic and Mt. Rainier, which have already felt the growing impacts of climate change putting storms on steroids.
Massive slices of the Olympic coast can disappear in a single storm — and storms are getting bigger and more destructive. A warmer climate creates greater temperature ranges across the ocean, and larger pressure differentials, spawning more powerful gales. Plus, warmer air holds more moisture.
The University of Washington Climate Impacts Group predicts that impacts of climate change — including increased winter rainfall, warmer winters, and higher seas — will magnify landslides, coastal erosion and river flooding in Olympic.
A 2004 U.S. Geological Survey report rated half of the park coastline at high or very high vulnerability to sea-level rise. Already, archaeological sites 5,000 years old have been swept away during storms.
When I was researching my book on national parks and climate change, Olympic National Park coastal ecologist Steven Fradkin told me, “I would expect to see a lot more mass wasting of the uplands there and wave action causing slope failure.”
In November 2006, the most destructive storm in Mount Rainier National Park’s 109-year history dropped 18 inches of rain in 36 hours — the equivalent of 15 feet of snow — causing record flooding and $24 million in damage to roads, trails, bridges and other infrastructure. Five acres of a campground were swept away by the Nisqually River; one highway washout was deep enough to drop a seven-story building into it. Deemed a 400-year flood, it was one of four 100-year-or-greater floods to strike Western Washington within just 12 years.
If the notion of ringing New York City with a wall to hold back the sea — estimated to cost $10 billion just for Manhattan — seems cost-prohibitive if not intuitively absurd, consider the feasibility of protecting the approximately 5,000 miles of shore comprising America’s Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, where more than half of all Americans now live and the population is projected to grow by 15 million more people by 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The climate future is upon us. We face difficult decisions in adapting to climate change, from our coastal communities to our revered parks. But we must start having those conversations now. The next massive storm or flood will only cost more in dollars and, potentially, lives.
Michael Lanza of Boise is the Northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine, runs the blog The Big Outside, and is author of “Before They’re Gone — A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.”