A changing climate can threaten communities in a number of ways. Rising sea levels can wash away settlements. Warmer ocean temperatures can alter the distribution of important fisheries. Warmer air temperatures can cause sources of freshwater to dry up.
One coastal community in the Pacific Northwest has struggled to cope with all three of these impacts. The Quinault Indian Nation town of Taholah, located on the edge of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, sits at the mouth of the Quinault River. The town’s 800 residents rely on the nearby Anderson glacier to feed the river, which acts as a source of freshwater and a causeway for the massive annual salmon run. The salmon industry is the main source of employment in the small coastal town.
As temperatures warm and the seas rise, Taholah’s residents have found themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. Following 50 years of continual melting, the Anderson glacier disappeared completely in 2011. Now fed only by seasonal snow melt, the Quinault River has been reduced to a trickle, negatively impacting the once mighty salmon run and the livelihood of Taholah’s residents.
In addition to dwindling fish stocks and freshwater, Taholah faces threats from erosion due to rising sea levels, as well as the ever-present risk of a tsunami due to the proximity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. A recently completed 2000-foot sea wall is meant to safeguard the town from erosion in the interim, but residents recognize the need for a long-term solution. They have developed a $60 million plan for relocating Taholah to higher ground.
To draw attention to the plight of their community and express concern about the implications of global climate change, the Quinault tribe attended the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 as a sovereign nation. However, the fate of the community rests in the hands of Congress, which must approve funding for the tribe’s proposed relocation plan.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.