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Originally published Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 9:17 PM

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Record-high tides wash in prospects for more in future

Damage done by Monday's storm-driven high tide could be a preview of what climate change could cause on a regular basis.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Following Monday's highest tides ever recorded in Seattle, which sent waves spilling onto 100 properties in West Seattle, city climate-change watchers say the area could be in for more of the same — or worse — in years to come.

"Yesterday's tide would be an everyday tide by midcentury," James Rufo-Hill, a Seattle Public Utilities meteorologist studying the potential effects of climate change, said Tuesday.

That's a scary thought for West Seattle resident Robert Porter, who said his property on Beach Drive Southwest was inundated with more waves Monday than when the so-called Hanukkah Eve storm hit in 2006. After pumping 3 feet of water off his yard with a 10-horsepower pump, he, his wife and two adult sons spent the day helping neighbors, some of whom saw their entire downstairs drenched in saltwater.

"Everybody's drying out now and trying to figure out what to do next," Porter said Tuesday night.

It wasn't Seattle alone that experienced the wintertime "king tide," pushed by strong winds Monday morning. In various areas around Puget Sound, waves bashed docks, sea walls and structures.

Storm damage led Des Moines to close down Redondo Boardwalk until further notice. The tides and winds ripped wiring and some siding from Highline Community College's aquarium of more than 100 species on the boardwalk, according to its executive director, Kaddee Lawrence.

The damage to its electrical systems forced the aquarium to use backup generators Monday, but most of the aquarium's electricity has since been restored, she said.

Monday's Seattle high tide, 14.51 feet, topped the previous record, 14.49 feet, set in January 1983, Rufo-Hill said.

The damaging tides are magnified partly because sea level in Seattle has risen by 8 inches over the past century.

"And the best available science tells us it is going to continue to rise and it is going to accelerate," Rufo-Hill said, adding that studies indicate the level of Puget Sound could rise by 2 to 4 feet by the end of this century.

The combination of high tides and strong winds poured seawater onto yards and homes along Beach Drive Southwest, although just a small number had water that needed to be pumped out of their homes.

The South Park area along the Duwamish River also sustained damage from high water.

"Climate change is real," said Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in the wake of the damage. "It is one of the things we've been looking at with regard to seawall design, shoreline codes and coastal areas subject to erosion."

Earlier this week, the state Department of Ecology invited the public to help document the event of this winter's highest tides, saying photos showing high-water levels offer a glimpse of what may be in store as the climate changes.

The department is asking people send in photos showing high water impacting sea walls, jetties, bridge supports and buildings. More information on the "King Tide photo initiative" is at www.flickr.com/groups/1611274@N22/pool.

At Seattle Public Utilities, a "climate and sustainability group" formed about five years ago has been looking at what could be done to protect the agency's infrastructure against rising water.

"This is not just in Seattle," said Paul Fleming, who heads the group. "People around the world are going to be trying to figure this out."

The answer may lie in a combination of moving some facilities, raising others and looking for ways to protect those that must stay in place, he said.

"I'm not trying to be an alarmist," Fleming said, "but I think it's something we need to be looking at and talking about and preparing for."

Porter, the West Seattle resident who saw dozens of neighbors' homes drenched by the high tides, agrees.

He said water pumps were no help while wave after wave of green water splashed onto his neighborhood, and he thinks it's time he and his neighbors agree on building their bulkhead higher.

"If it was even 1 or 2 feet higher, we'd be in great shape," Porter said. "Now is the time to strike."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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