Rising sea levels, storms could devastate Washington towns

LA CONNER, Wash. -- Entire communities are at risk of disappearing, and scientists say everyone in Western Washington should be concerned.

Who doesn't love the impossibly charming town of La Conner? Yet the historic, scrappy waterfront town in Skagit County is among the most at risk in the state.

Sea levels are projected to rise by two-to-six feet by the end of the century, joined by high tides and storm surges. If the projection stands, half the population would be forced to move.

"It's definitely something to worry about and be concerned about, but I am a skeptic," said La Conner visitor Don Becker.

The town is just one of 30 in Washington -- including Aberdeen, Westport, Ocean City and even the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station -- now believed to be vulnerable to future inundation and rising sea levels.

Whether it's just a foot of rising sea level and high tide or much worse, Seattle's entire port, stadium area and SoDo -- along with billions of dollars worth of Duwamish industrial area -- could be wiped out.

Tacoma faces much of the same inundation.

In advance of next month's anticipated Global Climate Consensus Report, top White House environmental official Nancy Sutley recently visited the Skagit River Basin.

"Probably would not survive a major event that pushed them to an overtop. They would fail instead," Sutley said.

Local communities are now preparing for an uncertain future. A flood wall in downtown Mount Vernon was raised four feet above the 100 year flood stage.

"We thought that four feet would give us some wiggle room in case of changing conditions," said Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau.

It was the town's vigilance that prompted Sutley's visit.

"And the reason we came here is because we know this is a community that's working together to try to address what has been a challenge for decades that will be magnified by impacts of climate change," she said.

With two feet of sea rise, government studies say a flood that normally hits every 100 years would hit every single year.

Mount Vernon restaurant owner Paul Springer is positioned right next to the Skagit River and said he'll do whatever he can to protect himself and his business.

"Oh definitely. I think all of us have to. If we don't start looking at everything that we do impacts, our region, you know, our climate, region, we're going to be sitting there out of business, plain and simple," he said.

The flooding and rising sea levels wouldn't simply hurt home and business owners, either. Dave Peterson with the US Forest Service said it would greatly damage the local ecosystem.

"Sea level rise will have a tremendous impact on our coastal ecosystems," he said. "Our estuaries are the most productive areas of the oceans, right along our shorelines."

From greenhouse gasses already melting ice sheets, and warming and expanding ocean water around the world, changes in Western Washington will be unavoidable, according to scientists. It's already happening.

"We don't know which year for sure something big might happen, like a big fire or a big flood. But I think some investment now will probably help us adapt more smoothly in the future," Peterson said.

The experts say the impact can be lessoned with changes in national policies around the world, along with every day steps by individuals.