OLYMPIA - South Sound faces some extreme high tides next week that could climb even higher than predicted because of this winter's El Niño-influenced weather.
Tides are predicted to hover near 17 feet in Budd Inlet the mornings of Feb. 1-3, a height they reach only a few times a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. University of Washington scientists say there’s a chance tides will be even higher than predicted.
In typical El Niño winters, when the equatorial Pacific warms and the Northwest experiences warmer and drier weather than normal, high tides average about a foot above predicted levels for the entire winter, said Nate Mantua, co- director of the UW Climate Impacts Group.
The warmer ocean water expands, the southwest winds pile up the ocean water feeding into Puget Sound, and the northwest Pacific Ocean experiences persistent low-pressure systems that also allow the water to expand, Mantua said.
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Just last week, record-low barometric pressure off the West Coast played a major role in Puget Sound tides rising as much as 2 feet higher than predicted, pushing the actual tides in Budd Inlet close to or above the 17-foot mark by midweek. “It’s likely to happen again,” Mantua said of the string of weather events that pushes high tides even higher.
Neil Falkenburg, owner of West Bay Marina in lower Budd Inlet, said the high water last week spilled into his parking lot and lapped at the corner of his building.
What made it even more bizarre was the lack of wind or rain, which often accompany South Sound flooding, Falkenburg said.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and never seen the water this high,” he said. “If we have low barometric pressure next week, I’ll be here with my waders on.”
Across the inlet north of Priest Point Park, waterfront resident Rick Lawrence watched Wednesday morning with amazement as the high tide, which was supposed to be about 15.6 feet, topped his bulkhead and disabled his well’s pump.
He, too, said it was the highest tide he’s seen at his waterfront property in 20 years.
In early January, a 17-foot tide left about 2 feet of clearance between the water and the Percival Landing boardwalk in downtown Olympia.
Last week’s tide was higher than the one in early January, said Andy Haub, a city of Olympia public works official.
Olympia’s lack of an official tide gauge – the closest one is in Tacoma – makes it difficult to precisely compare one high tide with another, Haub said.
The city is working with the Port of Olympia to put a tide gauge in lower Budd Inlet.
High tides are expected to become a topic of increased importance in the decades ahead, because of sea-level rise attributed to climate change, Mantua and others have said.
Sea-level-rise models by the UW Climate Impacts Group show water levels in the Pacific Northwest increasing from 3 inches to 22 inches by 2050.
A sea-level increase of 13 inches could cause extensive flooding of downtown streets during extreme high tides because of marine water flowing up through storm drains, according to a city public works briefing paper presented to the City Council last year.
Olympia’s biggest flooding threats occur when high tides coincide with storms and heavy volumes in the Deschutes River, which flows into Budd Inlet, said Olympia assistant fire chief Greg Wright.
The weather forecast for the next week does not include that scenario, said Larry Kessel, who manages the Capitol Lake Dam, where the river meets lower Budd Inlet.
El Niño gets some of the credit for that, as it tends to split the jet stream that feeds winter storms into the Northwest, sending them instead to the north and south and leaving this region warmer and drier than normal.
Olympia is on pace to break the record for the warmest January on record. That record was set in 1953, when the daily average was 44 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
The temperature in Olympia reached 61 degrees on Jan. 19, breaking the record of 59 degrees for that day set in 1995.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444