Shoring Up for Climate Change

From 1965 to 2000, Tillamook County, Oregon saw massive beach erosion. Neskowin’s beach was a hotspot for this erosion, losing roughly 2 meters (10 feet) of its beach a year to the Pacific Ocean—about 70 meters (230 feet) in total from 1965 to 2000. Here beach-protecting rocks, known as riprap, have been placed in front of a Neskowin home to slow the process. (Photo: Patrick Corcoran, Oregon Sea Grant)

THE Pacific Ocean comes crashing in. Just a sliver of homes nestled between the raging sea and Highway 101, the tiny coastal town of Neskowin, Oregon, is soon overwhelmed.

Storming up Hawk Creek, the salty deluge cascades over the Salem Avenue Bridge, the only public access to the highway and safety.

This was the scene during the El Niño of 1997–1998. The climate event raised local sea levels by several centimeters and coincided with powerful storms, leading to flooding and area erosion the likes of which Neskowin’s residents had never seen before. But this snapshot could be as much a preview of things to come as a glimpse into the recent past.

By 2100, depending on the local terrain, sea levels along the Northwest coast will rise by anywhere from less than half a meter (1.5 feet) to as much as one-and-a-half meters (4.5 feet), according to current research. This means that by century’s end, the Pacific is likely to inundate the coast by as much as 50 meters (164 feet) in some places. The conclusion is inescapable: the Northwest’s coastal communities are at risk. But Neskowin residents and others in Oregon’s Tillamook County aren’t letting the dire projections drown their hopes. Instead, they’re adapting. And they’re getting some help from the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC).

Funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CIRC focuses on research that expands the state of the science while helping Northwestern residents adapt to climate change. 

Through its Envision Tillamook County Coastal Futures project, Envision Tillamook for short, CIRC is helping the people of Tillamook County—from area homeowners and businesses to local governments and state planners—visualize how both climate change and local planning will affect their natural and human landscapes. To accomplish this, Envision Tillamook researchers are modeling all 100 kilometers (62 miles) of Tillamook County’s coastline in Envision, a powerful computer program developed by CIRC researcher John Bolte. Envision is revealing how area landscapes are projected to change as population grows and sea levels rise.

Peter Ruggiero, Envision Tillamook’s lead researcher, says that to do the modeling right his team had to take the science directly to the people of Tillamook County.

“When I designed the project it was with the CIRC philosophy in mind; it was about co-developing usable science,” says Ruggiero.

Ruggiero, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has studied the impacts of climate change and variability on Oregon’s coast for the last decade. Through a series of community meetings and one-on-one interactions with local residents, Ruggiero, Bolte, and the rest of the Envision Tillamook team have gotten feedback from Tillamook residents on the modeling project as it progresses. Guy Sievert, a Neskowin resident, says he’s been impressed with the earnestness of the researchers and their effort.

“I’ve been very pleased with how receptive the group has been to input,” says Sievert.

What’s come out of the meetings is a series of likely future scenarios that mix climate projections—from climate-change-induced rising sea levels to growing wave heights—with local human impacts—including projections for population and infrastructure growth till the century’s end. But the program goes a step further.

Envision—which is currently being used on two other CIRC projects—is allowing Tillamook County to imagine the different planning paths they might take as the climate changes. Possible paths (see the sidebar graph) include changing and potentially restricting how buildings are sited along the coast. Also included is a path where current rules about “beach armoring”—a controversial engineering tool that allows homeowners to protect their beachside properties with rock formations called riprap but limits public beach access—are loosened to reflect the future realities of rising sea levels and beach loss.

Why all the planning? Tillamook homeowners say it’s about responding to climate change now and into the future.

“Regardless of what you think is causing it, the fact is, we’re already experiencing climate change, and it’s going to continue to impact the way we live on the coast,” says Sievert.

From 1965 to 2000, Neskowin lost some 70 meters (roughly 230 feet) of its beach to erosion. The overwhelming majority of this occurred in the late 1990s, which saw not only a powerful El Niño but also four “100-year storms,” so called because, based on past records, in any given year they have a minuscule, one-percent chance of happening.

Responding to the dangers on their doorsteps, Sievert and other Neskowin homeowners took action. In 2009, with the county’s backing they formed the Neskowin Coastal Hazards Committee (NCHC) to push for stronger building codes to protect both property and people facing coastal hazards and climate change.

But to make their case to area planners, the NCHC knew it needed some scientific muscle. They found an ally in Ruggiero, whose work would later become essential to two climate adaptation efforts—one for Neskowin and one for all of Tillamook County. As of this writing, what’s being called the Neskowin Plan is currently under review by the county. Ruggiero says Envision Tillamook grew out of this earlier work with Sievert and others. The effort got a boost from Oregon Sea Grant, whose Patrick Corcoran is a co-principal investigator on the project. Ruggiero says the idea was to try to extend the efforts of Sievert and the NCHC to the rest of Tillamook.

Sievert, who admits he was initially skeptical about what a modeling effort could add to the NCHC’s efforts, says he’s pleased that Ruggiero and Bolte are aiding his group’s planning work. But, he says, more planning will be needed as the climate continues to change. This will be especially important, he adds, for towns to avoid infrastructure snafus, such as Neskowin’s Salem Avenue Bridge, which, he points out, has long been not just the only public access to the highway, but also carries sewer and telephone lines into town. A second access to the highway is currently under construction due in large part to the efforts of Sievert and other concerned residents.

“I think the Envision [Tillamook] program is a natural extension of the things we have done locally in Neskowin,” says Sievert. “I think what it does is keep Tillamook County at the forefront of planning for these hazards.”

For more information, visit the project’s website.