Coastal Resilience in Puget Sound

Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the country, a factory for salmon and shellfish, home to 4.5 million people, and the economic engine of one of the nation’s strongest regional economies. While the Sound is greatly loved, the people living here are increasingly vulnerable to the Sound itself – from rising sea levels, extreme coastal storms and more frequent river flooding.

Enter Roger Fuller. Roger is an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s Washington chapter. He’s making Puget Sound coastlines more resilient in the face of climate change. How? Check out this Q&A:


What is the problem?

Roger Fuller:

Climate change is here, right now, and we're already feeling the impacts. In western Washington, we’ve been seeing bigger floods and storms in the last couple of decades. By 2100, sea level will rise 24 inches in Puget Sound. Big floods and storms—the ones we currently call “100 year events”—could be the norm. Coupled with growing populations on our coasts and floodplains, communities face greater damage, expenses and loss. So, we’re helping Puget Sound’s coastal communities become more resilient in the face of climate change.


What does “coastal resilience” mean?

Roger Fuller:

It’s all about resiliency, the ability to bounce back more quickly from disasters and deal with less costly impacts. Coastlines change over time, and as climate change brings higher seas and more intense storms, communities need to be able to adapt. Making decisions and investments to adapt wisely leads to coastal resilience.


What is The Nature Conservancy doing?

Roger Fuller:

Scientists like me are researching cost-effective ways to protect communities. One-third of Puget Sound shoreline is armored to protect communities from flood and storm damage. That “gray” infrastructure—levees, dikes, bulkheads and armored roads—is important. But natural “green” infrastructure—tidal marshes, wetlands, eelgrass beds— can be a powerful tool in building coastal resilience.

With partners, our Puget Sound Coastal Resilience Project studies six deltas across Puget Sound. We’ve developed a cutting-edge “wave model” to explore the role natural habitat plays in reducing the impact of storms. The models show that “green” infrastructure helps protect us from storms, floods and rising seas. Creating resilient coastal communities will require cost-effective investments in natural infrastructure, like restoring tidal wetlands and preserving natural lands in low-lying coastal zones. Our work at Port Susan Bay Preserve is showing the benefits of investing in natural habitat to help nature and people.

Another cool thing is that Puget Sound is just one of several sites across the Conservancy working on coastal resilience. We have a website that features a new Coastal Resilience Tool. This way, many communities around the nation and world can explore different flooding scenarios and projections of where and how sea level could impact their communities as they plan for future development. The Puget Sound section of the site will be up and running by the end of April.


How are these models going to help real people in their communities?

Roger Fuller:

Coastal communities are going to face bigger storms, bigger floods and higher sea levels no matter what. On top of that, coastal populations and development is only increasing. So, these tools help communities to see where and how they are vulnerable and what they can do about it. The bottom line is that communities rely on a mix of both gray and green infrastructure for protection, but we often forget the important role natural habitat plays in keeping us safe. This work sparks a dialogue about how we can all work together to minimize damage and increase resilience across Puget Sound.


Given everything you are learning, how are you feeling about the future of Puget Sound and our planet?

Roger Fuller:

Climate change is impacting lots of people negatively and we can expect much bigger impacts in the future. But there are things we can do at the local level to adapt and put us in better shape. And natural systems can play a big role in reducing risks. I am hopeful for the future because we have options. That is what keeps me going.

Your support is critical in ensuring Puget Sound’s coasts are resilient in the face of climate change



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