The Swinomish Tribe has lived on the coasts of the Salish Sea for thousands of years. Today, rising seas not only threaten cultural traditions, but also the economic vitality of this small island nation in the shadow of two oil refineries.
After scientists identified sea level rise as a threat to the Lower Skagit River area, the tribe launched a climate change initiative to study the long-term impacts of climate change on their reservation, and to develop an action plan to adapt. Impacts of sea level rise on the island, including coastal erosion, habitat loss, and declining water quality, raised central concerns. The study presented the Swinomish with a difficult question: whether to plan for inches or feet of rise?
Planning must embrace a range of possibilities. Important factors used to calculate global sea level rise, such as melt rates of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, vary widely. In addition, regional estimates must include local factors such as wind patterns and tectonic activity.
Sea level rise projections for Puget Sound range from very low (three inches by 2050) to very high (50 inches by 2100). Rising seas threaten to inundate up to 15 percent of low-lying Swinomish Reservation lands. Approximately 160 homes (worth over $83 million), 18 businesses (worth $19 million), critical roads and docks, areas of traditional tribal shellfish harvest, and sensitive cultural sites are all vulnerable to inundation. When sea level rise combines with more frequent and intense storms, a likely scenario in a warming world, the risks of damaging floods are even higher.
Planning for future change can thus feel like staring into a murky crystal ball. What if climate change cuts off mainland access to the Swinomish's Fidalgo Island Reservation? What if buildings relocated to higher ground in forested areas just swap the risk of flooding for increased risk of wildfire? What if sea levels change faster than scientists predict, and tribal peoples continue to bear a disproportionate burden of climate risk?
With millions of dollars invested in low-lying properties that include a bingo hall, casino, and hotel, the Swinomish are planning for a Puget Sound that is up to four feet higher than it is today. They are considering raising or relocating buildings, engineering shorelines to better support construction, and insuring properties against financial loss. But the coastal tribe cannot relocate inland or replace culturally significant lands and practices very easily. Tribal peoples worldwide have survived and thrived by adapting to change. The Swinomish will try to continue following the sea, living in rhythm with its rise.