Climate Resilience: Impacts on Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System (1 of 3)

By Todd Burley

The climate is changing, that’s for sure. According to Climate change 2021: the basis of physical sciences report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. These impacts – including sea level rise, extreme heat, intense thunderstorms, etc. – are already observed in Seattle.

Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) is adapting to our changing climate by managing a resilient system today and planning for one in the future. In the coming weeks we will publish a new report, Climate Resilience in Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System, which details the impacts on Seattle’s parks and programs. This report describes the impacts of climate change, what we are currently doing to adapt to these changes and some recommendations on what we can do in the future. In anticipation of this, we are sharing information on climate resilience in a series of three blog posts. Today we explore the impacts of climate change on Seattle’s parks and recreation system.

SPR has reviewed the latest scientific data on the impact of climate change in our region and identified six areas of greatest concern: sea level rise, weather changes, heavy rains, extreme weather, reducing snow accumulation and air pollution. Each of these impacts affects several areas of activity for SPR.

People

SPR’s parks and programs are vitally important to our residents, and climate change will create many challenges for them. Increased smoke from wildfires, extreme heat events and snowstorms will have a greater impact on vulnerable populations. In addition, these climate changes will impact indoor and outdoor programming. The same impacts will also be felt by SPR employees. However, these impacts do not arise in the same way; low-income people and residents of color are disproportionately affected by climate change.

Infrastructure

A photo shows a West Seattle pier overlooking Elliot Bay at dusk.

SPR looks after many pieces of infrastructure in our parks that can be impacted by rising sea levels, heavy rains and extreme weather conditions due to climate change. Sea walls, wharfs, piers and coastal paths are all threatened by sea level rise and associated high tide events which amplify this impact. Additionally, trails in our natural areas and landscaped parks are susceptible to damage from heavy winter rains, landslides and flooding. The same extreme weather events will also put pressure on green stormwater management infrastructure in our park system, making it less effective at managing runoff. Finally, extreme heat events can damage roads and potentially impact the integrity and durability of materials in our buildings, play structures, and other elements of the built environment.

Salt water shores

An evening shot overlooks Puget Sound with a cloudy yellow sunset.  A paddle boarder can be seen on the salt water.

Parks located along shorelines are vulnerable to sea level rise, as many contain large tidal areas, sensitive ecosystems, or beaches. Saltwater incursion due to rising ocean waters can impact coastal plants, causing them to decline and altering the habitat of this transitional ecosystem. The beaches in our parks are vulnerable to erosion due to sea level rise, and landslides along the shoreline slopes are more likely to be due to severe winter storms.

Plants & Animals

A photo shows an environmental education detail sign at the start of a Seattle parks trail.

SPR manages the vast majority of our community’s urban plant and wildlife habitat, most of which will be affected by climate change. Climate change, including hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, stresses plants and animals that have adapted to particular conditions. This can lead to an increase in unhealthy algae blooms in lakes and ponds. Increased winter rainfall saturation combined with increased pests and summer droughts can combine to increase tree failures for many species. New plants will need longer establishment periods at a time when the cost of water may increase. As the seasons change in length or timing, insects and birds that rely on flowers and berries arriving at certain times may have difficulty finding the food needed to thrive. Salmon, adapted to the spring melt bringing cold water at times for spawning, are affected by changes in snowpack, in addition to loss of riparian habitat due to climate change.

Facilities

A photo shows Golden Gardens Beach on a summer evening with a yellow sunset and people playing frisbee on the beach.

The buildings and other facilities of the SPR system are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Some impacts are secondary, such as loss of power due to downed trees or increased usage during extreme weather events. Along Seattle’s saltwater shores, however, buildings, picnic shelters, outdoor pools and other structures are also directly threatened by rising sea levels. Intense storms can damage foundations, utilities and other building infrastructure. In addition, the life of the materials may be shortened due to extreme heat and other impacts.

SPR analyzed each of these projected impacts and conducted a vulnerability assessment to help us prioritize our investments and plans over the coming decades based on the severity of the impact and the expected duration of the impact. This information will serve as a guide for the implementation of our strategic plan and to determine where funding is best directed.

Aware of these climate impacts, SPR is now making changes to adapt. In the next blog post, we’ll share some of the steps we’re taking to build a resilient parks and recreation system. Climate change is here today, and we need to act now to continue managing our system for future generations.

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