Anticipating sea level rise response in Puget Sound


Petersen, A.  2007. Anticipating sea level rise response in Puget Sound. M.M.A. thesis, School of Marine Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle.


When faced with the issues of climate change and sea level rise, decision-makers are unable to wait for scientific uncertainties to be resolved before taking action. Sea level rise predictions are complicated by the complex non-linear nature of the climate system and long-term dependence on human choices. This study analyzes the regulatory and institutional structure surrounding coastal zone management in Puget Sound, Washington, in order to identify barriers to and opportunities for sea level rise response.

Viewing the problem from a resilience perspective proves valuable as it builds off the social-ecological system concept, embraces change, and attempts to find ways to co-exist with uncertainty. The selection of non-catastrophic sea level rise scenarios and the creation of a variety of high-resolution, location specific, inundation maps are used to identify areas of vulnerability.

Focusing on local government, four potential sea level rise response options are identified along with associated barriers. 1) Increase the update frequency for floodplain maps to more accurate reflect environmental changes. 2) Include consideration of a dynamic shoreline when making shoreline armoring, cumulative impacts, and no net loss of ecological function determinations. 3) Use shoreline designations in the Shoreline Management Act to tailor responses to the coastal environment. 4) Leverage the Federal Consistency and funding provisions of the Coastal Zone Management Act to enhance response options.

The long-term nature of the sea level rise issue provides response opportunities not available in other arenas. By using the tools currently available, local decision-makers can limit the response costs and create a more robust policy framework capable of incorporating uncertainty and adapting to sea level rise.