Storm followup: Highest water level ever recorded in Seattle

(1st three photos from Monday, by Nick Adams for WSB)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

We have just learned that yesterday morning’s highest water level – the combination of high tide and “storm surge” – wasn’t just high, it was historic – the highest level ever recorded in Seattle.

The word comes from Seattle Public Utilities, which has to track this closely because of the effects storms and high tides can and do have on their facilities – look closely to see the water coming OUT of this manhole on Beach Drive, instead of going in:

And SPU meteorologist James Rufo-Hill tells WSB it’s likely “a harbinger of things to come.” More from our interview, ahead:

The storm surge is related to the atmospheric pressure “low” moving through with a storm – and Rufo-Hill tells us this could have been even worse; the highest storm surge of the day was actually around the early-morning LOW tide, and it was half a foot higher than what was happening during the 8:17 am high “king tide” on Monday. Not to mention, Rufo-Hill points out, it was “a good storm but not a huge storm.”

He says preliminary data from NOAA, from the official recording station at Colman Dock downtown, beat Seattle’s highest water level by a quarter of an inch – and that’s in the records going back to 1898. “The sea level has risen by more than six inches in the century and is going to accelerate due to global warming, so yesterday’s tide level will be common by mid-century.”

Rufo-Hill works with the SPU Wastewater Operations group, forecasting rainfall and runoff – and the tide plays into that, if it gets to a level affecting their system’s ability to handle water. Most of yesterday’s effects, he says, “were due to tides and not runoff,” even though the area did get a half-inch of rain as well. Since the high water meant water was “coming off the pipes,” he says there were “ponds throughout the city” created by that, including some on Harbor Island he says they could even see from SPU’s high-rise headquarters downtown. “As flooding due to wind and waves becomes more common, flooding up through our pipes will become more common.”

The basic high tide was 12.9 feet; the “anomaly storm surge” at the time, a foot and a half above that, combining for a 14.51-foot high-water mark measured at Colman Dock. (The previous record high was on January 27, 1983.)

Storm surges can be a lot worse, Rufo-Hill pointed out: “For comparison, Hurricane Sandy gave New York a nine-foot storm surge.”

Because of the high water, which saw residents like those in our photo working hard to pump and sweep the water away, SPU also helped out on Beach Drive and in South Park. But helping on the spot won’t be enough at some point in the future – “it’s going to take a citywide effort” to prepare for future high-water events, Rufo-Hill believes.

(This photo and next one from Monday, by WSB’s Patrick Sand)
And we might not have to wait long for those future events: “Now that this has happened, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen a couple more times this decade.”

And if the next round of “king tides” in January coincide with a storm, Rufo-Hill plans to head out this way and watch potential history in person.

See comprehensive WSB coverage – video and photos – of the historic high water, here.

8 Replies to "Storm followup: Highest water level ever recorded in Seattle"

  • wetone December 18, 2012 (6:16 pm)

    Very interesting. Growing up down at Alki I have seen water higher on the beach to the point of having sand and more pushed across the ave a few times. Along with the old bath house getting swamped. Before the steps going to the sand were built. Makes a huge deference with which way the wind blows. High tides big logs big winds makes a bad combo.

  • EmmaPeel December 18, 2012 (9:58 pm)

    The high tide causes the street where I work in Sodo to flood…it’s fill down there…

  • steve December 18, 2012 (10:14 pm)

    I wonder if the new sea wall downtown takes global warming into account?

  • ARE YOU KIDDING? December 19, 2012 (8:37 am)

    It’s not only the seawall that has to be considered–the buildings on all the piers, Alaskan Way…What about the train and new tunnel?
    Have you noticed there is no longer a gas station near Alki? The tanks get lifted. Hope the engineers and elected officials are considering all these things. Not being an alarmist, just an observer.

  • miws December 19, 2012 (1:22 pm)

    How bizarre to se the promenade flooded, especially form the perspective of looking toward Elliott Bay!



  • Mud Baby December 19, 2012 (1:50 pm)

    Monday morning while cruising by Pier 91 I noticed that water levels at Pier 91 seemed alarmingly high–what looked to me to be only 4 to 6 feet below the top of POS’s docks. By the end of the century, sea levels could be up to 4 feet higher than they are now.

    Am I the only one who wonders whether it makes sense to build a third $ 0.5 billion sports stadium in an area that by the end of the century (if not sooner) could easily be flooded on a regular basis by the simultaneous occurrence of sea level rise + a major storm-generated low pressure storm surges and flooding on the Green-Duwamish River, not to mention the effects of occasional King Tides? Under such conditions the Green River would also backwater upstream back up as far as Kent, which is protected by rinky-dink levees that the mayor and her pro-business cronies are dead set against setting back to improve flood conveyance. When Howard Hanson Dam was originally designed in the late 50s and early 60s it was thought to have the capacity to hold back a 500-year flood. Using modern methods of hydrologic modelling (which don’t even take into account the potential for increased frequency of devastating storms and flooding in the future as the atmosphere heats up), the dam’s actual storage capacity has been found to be only enough to contain the 140 year flood. The Red Queen-like mayor of Kent says–no problem, the Corps can build another Green River dam and/or raise the height of the existing dam–as if these projects, which would cost hundreds of $millions, could be done by waving a magic wand.

    Here in Seattle we’re also poised to spend up to a $billion on the seawall and the osmetic makeover of the waterfront as if this part of downtown will somehow be magically exempt from the effects of rising sea levels in the current century and beyond.

    We go to great lengths to preserve and restore historic buildings, but at the same time build stuff, e.g., the new towers being built across the parking lot from the Hawks stadium, that may not be accessible except by boat in hundred years because of future sea level rise. Ignoring these realities is much more politically palatable to politicians at all levels of government. That is why the United States hasn’t even signed let alone ratified the Law of the Sea convention (which took place from 1973 through 1982), let alone the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent climate treaties.

  • Mark Olsoe December 21, 2012 (11:27 am)

    The fact of the matter is that we as a species are addicted to burning fossil fuel. Instead of cutting back we are burning more and more each year. Unchecked this is going to seriously mess with the earth’s climate. Our only hope is to tax fossil fuel to pay for mitigation. The only mitigation that will work as I see it is to inject alkaline aerosols high in the atmosphere to cool the earth back to normal and to remediate the acidification of the oceans. I someone has a better idea I would be happy to know about it.

  • WsEd January 7, 2013 (5:11 pm)

    And when I was younger I thought I wanted water front property. I think I will stay up on the hill like the old timers used to.

Sorry, comment time is over.