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

By Todd Burley

The climate is changing, this is clear. According to the 2021 Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” These impacts – including sea level rise, extreme heat, intense rainstorms, and more – are already being seen 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 be releasing a new report, Climate Resiliency in Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System, which details impacts to Seattle’s parks and programs. This report lays out the impacts of climate change, what we are doing currently to adapt to these changes, and some recommendations on what we can do in the future. In preparation for this, we are sharing some information about climate resiliency in a series of three blog posts. Today we explore the impacts of climate change to Seattle’s parks and recreation system.

SPR reviewed the most recent science on climate change impact for our region and identified six areas of most concern: sea level rise, weather shifts, heavy rain, extreme weather, reduced snowpack, and air pollution. Each of these impacts affect multiple areas of operation for SPR.

People

A child smiles and plays at a Seattle Parks spray park feature.

SPR’s parks and programs are vitally important for our residents, and climate change will create many challenges for them. Increased wildfire smoke, extreme heat events, and snowstorms will impact vulnerable populations most dramatically. In addition, such weather shifts will impact programming both indoors and outdoors. The same impacts will be felt by SPR’s employees as well. Yet these impacts are  not born equally; low-income and residents of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Infrastructure

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

SPR cares for many infrastructure elements in our parks that may be impacted by sea level rise, heavy rain events, and extreme weather due to climate change. Sea walls, docks, piers, and shoreline trails are all at risk from a rising sea level and the associated king tide events that amplify this impact. In addition, trails in our natural areas and developed parks are likely to be damaged due to winter heavy rain events, landslides, and flooding. The same extreme weather events will also stress green stormwater infrastructure in our parks system, making them less effective for managing run-off. Finally, extreme heat events can damage roadways, and potentially impact the integrity and durability of materials in our buildings, play structures, and other elements of the built environment.

Saltwater Shorelines

An evening picture looks out onto the Puget Sound with a cloudy yellow sunset. A paddle boarder can be seen in on the saltwater.

Parks located along shorelines are vulnerable to sea level rise, as many contain large tidelands, sensitive ecosystems, or beaches. Saltwater incursion from rising ocean water can impact nearshore plants, causing decline and altering the habitat of this transitional ecosystem. Beaches in our parks are vulnerable to erosion from rising sea levels, and landslides along shoreline slopes are more likely due to severe winter storm events.

Plants & Animals

A picture shows environmental education detail sign at a Seattle Parks trailhead.

SPR stewards the vast majority of habitat for the urban wildlife and plants in our community, most of which will be impacted by a changing climate. Climatic shifts, including hotter and drier summers as well as wetter winters, stress plants and animals that have adapted to particular conditions. This can lead to an increase in unhealthy algal blooms in lakes and ponds. Increased saturation from winter rains combined with an increase in pests and summer droughts can combine to increase tree failures for many species. New plants will need longer establishment periods at a time when water may increase in cost. As the seasons shift in duration or timing, insects and birds reliant on blooms and berries arriving at certain times may have difficulty finding the food needed to prosper. Salmon, adapted to spring melt bringing cold water at certain times for spawning are impacted by shifts in snow accumulation, in addition to riparian habitat loss due to climatic shifts.

Facilities

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

The buildings and other facilities in SPR’s system are also vulnerable to the impacts from climate change. Some impacts are secondary, such as loss of power due to downed trees, or increased use in extreme weather events. Along Seattle’s saltwater shorelines, however, buildings, picnic shelters, outdoor pools, and other structures are also directly at risk from rising sea levels. Erosion and intense storm events can damage foundations, utilities, and other infrastructure elements of the building. Also, it is possible the life of materials will 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 depending on the severity of the impact and the expected time of impact. This information will act as a guide as we implement our Strategic Plan and determine where funding is best directed.

Knowing of these climate impacts, SPR is making changes today to adapt. In the next blog post we will share some of the current actions we are taking to build a resilient parks and recreation system. Climate change is here today, and we must act now to continue to steward our system for future generations.