On a hot day last August, the Whitmarsh family took a trip to Seattle to visit the Space Needle. Standing in the viewing area, we were shocked to see a large plume of smoke rising to the west. We quickly realized the fire was only a couple of miles from work and home.
The year 2021 was one to remember, a wake-up call to those of us living in a state that generally hasn’t seen the effects of climate change. We are both privileged to live in a gorgeous state full of towering mountains, vibrant forests and the vast Puget Sound, and yet this beauty and peace are at risk. The impact of climate change has continued to increase in recent decades but in the summer of 2021, as the Key Peninsula experienced particularly extreme weather events, climate change became a living reality.
Many of us have been fortunate to watch climate change unfold from afar, which has given us a false sense of security. In the last year the Puget Sound area set records in heat, rainfall and snowfall. These extreme events include the 108-degree heat dome of July, with the devastating loss of 157 people — a 96% increase over 2020, with Pierce County ranking second in highest mortalities according to the state Department of Health.
Senior citizens (about 24% of the KP population) disproportionally suffered last summer, and our lack of public transportation and resources substantially increases their risk in these conditions. Extreme events continued with devastating floods reaching the 15-foot benchmark in Tacoma while Mount Rainier lost about 30% of its snowpack.
The reality is that our infrastructure is not prepared for what climate change will bring, as last year proved. We don’t write this to instill fear or dread, but to bring awareness to these issues and call people to action in the KP home we love. As individuals, we can’t reverse the effects of climate change; that begins at an institutional level. Yet we know the KP can come together to protect those who are most vulnerable and prepare for changes affecting all of us.
We recognize that these changes in our climate can be daunting, so we want to focus on solutions and tangible actions. Thankfully, our region is beginning the work to improve and adapt by using renewables and conserving green spaces. Peninsula Light Co. relies on up to 98% renewable energy, while the KP has an abundance of parks and trees, and many events to educate residents.
Nevertheless, we can do more to prepare ourselves for the intensifying problems that climate change will bring. From big to small, a few actions newly learned can strengthen community resilience. As wildfires and heatwaves grow in frequency and intensity, creating shelters where residents can find respite from extreme temperatures and smoke will make a substantial difference in preventing temperature and air pollution-related illnesses. The infrastructure for these shelters is already in place as community centers, schools, restaurants and churches all have great potential for protecting those who need it.
Extreme flooding can also pose risks that can be mitigated through group efforts from creating flood barriers with sandbags to improving bulkheads. To address increasing food insecurity, we can start relying on local farmers and gardens throughout the KP to grow our own organic food while also creating new spaces for neighbors to bond and interact.
But none of these spaces will be effective if they are not easily accessible to everyone, so improving public transportation systems to increase accessibility to food, health care, community centers, gardens, green spaces and secondhand merchandise (clothing, tools, personal care products, etc.) for everyone will be essential.
Most importantly, students, staff and faculty from local schools should be involved in these projects to teach and engage students in community resilience and foster strong relationships across generations. Students can become involved by hosting sandbag projects and starting gardens at school, and raising their voices in support of better change.
We call on our community members to accept this reality and start to build support systems to help each other through this ecological crisis. Climate change is here and it is very real. As urgency grows, it becomes more important to look out for each other so that we can all learn to thrive together.
Best friends since third grade, KP residents Natalie and Olivia have a passion both for people and the planet. Olivia Whitmarsh is a junior at the University of Washington completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology with a minor in social science research methods. Natalie Pierson is a senior and first-year graduate student at Northern Arizona University earning a Bachelor of Science in environmental and sustainability studies and a Master of Science in climate science and solutions.
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