Puget Sound, home to already imperiled salmon, orcas and shorebirds, could be further jeopardized by rising sea levels brought on by global warming, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation. “Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Habitats in the Pacific Northwest” takes an unprecedented look at global warming’s profound impact on the coastal habitats of Washington and Oregon.  

“You may not think variations at the shoreline impact whales that spend most of their time in deeper waters, but small changes can set off a chain reaction,” says Patty Glick, author of the report and global warming specialist at the National Wildlife Federation’s Western Natural Resources Center. “When Chinook salmon are threatened by habitat changes, lack of food and warmer water, orcas suddenly can’t find enough food to live and reproduce.”  

Global warming is contributing to a significant increase in the rate of global sea-level rise because of rising ocean temperatures, melting glaciers and ice fields. The report analyzes a range of sea-level–rise scenarios detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), from a 3-inch rise in global average sea level by 2025 to more than 2 feet by 2100. The study also models a rise of up to 6.5 feet by 2100 to accommodate for recent studies that suggest sea-level rise will occur much more rapidly this century than the IPCC models have predicted.  

According to the new report, the impacts will be dramatic. Beaches where rivers meet open water will be inundated and eroded for a 65% loss. As much as 44% of tidal flat will disappear. And 13% of inland fresh marsh and 25% of tidal fresh marsh will be lost.  

“We know that we must respond to climate change; this report highlights the need to act immediately,” says Gov. Chris Gregoire (D-WA). “Changes to coastal habitats will have not only consequences for fish and wildlife, but for the business and workers that depend on them for survival.”  

The report recommends several steps in planning future use of coastal resources. Coastal managers must account for global warming in habitat restoration efforts. Civic planners should also incorporate sea-level rise in coastal development plans, discouraging development in coastal hazard areas, moving or abandoning shoreline infrastructure, preserving ecological buffers to allow inland habitat migration and enhancing shoreline protection to avoid the negative consequences for its habitat. Finally, public officials must not let the uncertainties of climate change—whether seas will rise a couple of feet or a couple of yards—as an excuse for inaction.  

“Global warming isn’t just about melting glaciers thousands of miles away. It could have a dramatic impact on the health of our beloved coastlines, marine life—even the size of the snowpack that feeds the Columbia River system,” says Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). “If America fails to address climate change, we’ll be jeopardizing all of our hard-fought conservation gains and putting thousands of local jobs at risk.”  

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