I’m writing to you from the summer of 2014, wriggling my toes in the sand of Alki Beach, and I wonder: Does Seattle circa 2050 still have Alki Beach?
By the time you read this you’ll probably be in your 20s, but Grandma will be an old bird—that or a memory—so it may be too late to say: I’m sorry. The air you now inhale, the sea you fish in, the forests whose shade you seek—the quality of all of this was wrought by the generations that came before you. As I write, scientists tell me: We have already done the damage that you are now suffering from.
Just weeks ago, that damage was detailed in a one-two punch of grim reports: Congress’s most thorough to date National Climate Assessment, then the University of Washington–NASA revelation that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting irrevocably.
The first hit my inbox as a dispiriting but practical heads-up, full of projections about rising seas and declining snowpack, whose wide ranges reflected not flabby science but the alternate realities post-2050 if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions versus if we don’t. News of the melting ice sheet, by contrast, came like a sucker punch to the sternum, leveling sober scientists with its train-has-left-the-station inevitability and the clip of its progress: ice sheet collapse in as little as 200 years, sea levels up 10 feet.
Of course the sea is rising now—has been for years—and could be up another 19 inches by the time you read this. If our scientists are right, Seattle communities are already scrambling to contend with frequent high-tide and storm-surge flooding in low areas like Harbor Island and South Park, with all the attendant drainage and erosion and infrastructure problems. You’ve likely already found it harder to squeeze your towel onto narrowing Alki Beach. Golden Gardens will be history within your lifetime.
Across the region, you’re seeing flooded coastal wetlands; the shore-hugging Highway 101 in Oregon may already be in pieces. If downtown Olympia’s not underwater, credit miracle-making engineers. Then count your blessings, dear What’s-Your-Name, because Seattle—with its hilly topography and high waterfront seawall—is in better shape than Boston, a third of which could be underwater by 2100.
For these reasons, you may well be contending with a population explosion, as relocators surge in from harder-hit parts of the country. Seattle’s temperature will rise too—2 to 8 degrees by 2050, 4 to 10 degrees by 2100. But our main problems will come in the form of more summer heat waves, which will kill more people and overtax energy resources, and the increased global weirding rising temperatures will bring. One expert gave me a handy—if awful—rubric: When the sea rises a foot, the so-called 100-year flood becomes a 10-year flood. When the sea rises two feet, that 10-year flood will strike every year.
You are already seeing more winter precipitation falling as rain than snow; your parents probably never saw the point of teaching you to ski. It also means more winter/spring flooding, more summer/fall drought, more heavy-downpour days, more landslides. A diminishing snowpack touches northwesterners’ lives in an uncanny preponderance of ways—from the hydroelectric power that will cost you more to the difficulty keeping our crops irrigated to the diminishing habitats of our salmon and trout. Our lush evergreen forests? Thanks to fire and drought and insect infestations, many will be replaced by different vegetation in your lifetime.
It’s awful—but please don’t despair. If we get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now, we can still mitigate the harm for the latter part of the century. You live in Seattle after all, whose noble goal back in my day was to be entirely carbon neutral by 2050. (Tell me we made it.) Me, I live in a time when every global warming news story still triggered reflexive ridicule from the crazies and the flat-earthers. What gives me hope? Your generation will get it.
Still, gazing out over the ruffling blue of Puget Sound, I think about what’s happening beneath its surface and…well, you’ll forgive me if hope sometimes feels inappropriate. The surging acidification we can now measure off our coast—clocking in at some of the highest levels in the world—is the result of the CO2 our seas absorbed 50 years ago. Which means that 50 years from now, your waters will be loaded with the carbon emissions of 2014. Already oyster larvae won’t grow where it once did—which means you may have never experienced the singular Northwest bliss of slurping one right off the rocky beach. All calcifying organisms—nearly one-third of Puget Sound’s creatures—are potentially vulnerable.
And so, therefore, are we. Scientists remain chillingly uncertain what exactly the acidification of the seas will bring. They do know that when even the tiniest of creatures, like the little underwater flyers called pteropods, are damaged to the degree they are now—the effects go right up the food chain. Honestly I’ve never seen a pteropod, I never think about pteropods. I’m not ashamed to say, I don’t care about pteropods.
So why I want to cry thinking of you in a world without them is a question almost too terrible to ask.