UW News

October 8, 2009

Sculpture park to host UW display on sea level and climate change

The UW is creating a display at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park that illustrates how projected changes in sea level due to climate change could affect Seattle’s waterfront, as well as other more vulnerable waterfront cities elsewhere in the world.

The display, which opens Oct. 10, was mounted at the request of SAM’s environmental steward Jackie White. It shows how a one meter rise of sea level, which experts predict might occur by the year 2100, could inundate gentle slopes. The display marks the current high tide line along Elliott Bay with blue rope, and then shows, with red rope, how a one meter rise could inundate the sculpture park’s pocket beach to a horizontal distance of 10 to 20 feet.

The display also shows the effect of one meter’s sea level rise on a path near the Alexander Calder sculpture. Because this path slopes at a very shallow angle relative to the beach, if the actual coastline today corresponded to the sharp bend in the path at the Calder sculpture, the inundation would go back about 190 feet. This level is marked in the exhibit by red ribbons along the path — indicating that the coastline would move inland to near the PACCAR Pavilion, if the slope were that gentle.

The display’s designers point out that most of Seattle’s beaches are quite steep, so a rise in sea level would not produce many dramatic local effects. Not so in other parts of the world, including Seattle’s sister city of Surabaya, Indonesia, which has gentle slopes, a major port, and more than 3 million residents potentially experiencing dramatic effects from a sea level rise.

Current evidence suggests sea level is rising by about three millimeters (one-eighth of an inch) each year; many climate experts predict that this rate will, if anything, increase over time.

This display, a partnership among SAM and the UW’s College of the Environment and Program on Climate Change, will open at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, with a short tour and science-based interpretation by its creators. The display closes Oct. 24, the International Day of Climate Action.

Display creators include Kristin Poinar, graduate student in Earth and space sciences; Amy Cash, graduate student in oceanography; Paul Hezel, graduate student in atmospheric sciences; and Cecilia Bitz, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, with Jackie White from SAM.