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A Washington Tribe Confronts Climate Change and Sea Level Rise

November 9, 2015

As international leaders prepare for the next round of climate talks in Paris, the plight of climate refugees is expected to be front and center.

The question confronting these global leaders is this: how should the developed world help poor, island and coastal nations whose lands and livelihoods are threatened by sea level rise, extreme weather and other climate change-related risks?

Here in the Northwest, sea level rise is forcing a Native American tribe to consider abandoning lands it has inhabited for thousands of years.

The Quinault Indian Nation, whose small village lies at the mouth of the Quinault River on the outer coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, now relies on a 2,000 foot-long sea wall to protect it from the encroaching Pacific Ocean.

In March, 2014 waves crashed over the sea wall that protects the Quinault Indian Reservation at the mouth of the Quinault River. The tribe declared a state of emergency. Courtesy, Larry Workman

Small, ramshackle homes back up to the modest wall of rock and gravel. Last March, Quinault Tribal Council President Fawn Sharp got a call in the middle of the night from an elder who lives in one of those homes.

“The ocean breached into his back yard and took out his smokehouse,” Sharp said. “Shortly after I talked to him, we lost power. So in the midst of trying to draft an emergency declaration the power went out.”

Fawn Sharp, tribal council president of the Quinault Indian Nation, has participated in international climate negotiations in the past but she says this year in Paris she’s eager to see where the conversation goes but won’t be signing any international climate deals. Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFixThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the sea wall, but it’s a temporary fix. A more permanent solution is on the table, but it won’t be cheap or easy. The Quinault tribe has developed a $60 million plan to move the entire village of Taholah uphill and out of harm’s way. That will mean relocating the school, the courthouse, the police station and the homes of 700 tribal members a safer distance from the encroaching Pacific.  

“It’s a heavy price tag,” Sharp acknowledged, adding that she and others with the Quinault will be turning to Congress, philanthropists and the tribe’s own financial resources to pay for the project.

“When it comes to extreme measures taken to adapt to climate change it does take an entire collaborative approach among agencies it can’t be done alone,” she said.

The threat of climate change for the Quinault doesn’t end with sea level rise. About five years ago, the Anderson Glacier, which contributes cool water to the Quinault River at critical times of year, disappeared for good. It had been receding since locals began photographing it, but Fawn Sharp still remembers the day when she saw that it was completely gone.

“In that moment I could feel my heart sinking, thinking that the glacier that feeds the mighty Quinault River has now disappeared.”

The absence of the Anderson Glacier is already being felt. Very little snow fell on the Olympic Mountains this past winter, leading to minimal inputs of snowmelt into the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers, including the Quinault. Normally, glacial melt supplements river flows late in the summer and early fall.

But without the glacier, the Quinault River was lower than ever before recorded; so low that while walking through a newly-exposed stretch of river bed, one tribal member accidentally stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a mastodon jaw that may have been submerged since the last ice age.Quinault tribal member David James, Jr. stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a baby mastodon jaw while walking through a shallow part of the Quinault River during this summer’s drought. The jaw may have been submerged since the last ice age. Courtesy, Joe Schumacker

Sharp says she’s heartened by the increasing presence of representatives from island nations and other developing countries at the international climate gatherings in recent years. Indigenous peoples around the world are often on the front lines of climate change despite the fact that they contribute the smallest amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Sharp says the international community should take note of that disparity and take responsibility.

"And if there are areas where a jurisdiction or an entire nation of people don’t have the capacity or financial wherewithal to contend with the issue," she said, "then there is a responsibility in other parts of the world to provide that aid and assistance.” 

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Shane Underwood (left) and his son, David, stand at the Quinault Indian Nation’s seafood plant in Taholah, Washington. The loss of the largest glacier that feeds the Quinault River and rising seas are threatening the tribe’s way of life.

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW/EarthFix