This mysterious Mukilteo waterfront building is home to cutting-edge climate change research

MUKILTEO, Wash.— The windows are dark at the two-story building along the Mukilteo waterfront. The wooden siding looks worn and weathered. Just feet from Puget Sound, anything metal has hints of rust from decades of use and sitting exposed to the salty marine air.

It might be almost Halloween, but this building - surrounded by a chain-linked fence topped with barbed wire - is no haunted house. 

“It is challenging to do research in our current facility,” says Paul McElhany.

He’s station chief at the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Research Center. From his wood-paneled office on the second floor, a long pier extends from the building out into the breathtaking view of Puget Sound. In the distance is the green shoreline of Whidbey Island and a ferry docked on the other side of the water.

“Being able to pump water from Puget Sound is essential to what we’re doing,” says McElhany.

McElhany leads us on the a tour of the building and grounds through hallways with well-worn hardwood floors. This facility was a World War II Air Force barracks. In the 1970s, it was converted to a marine fisheries research center. Despite any run down appearance, the pioneering science here continues.

“We’re trying to understand the mechanisms on how global climate change is going to influence our local marine resources and resources on the west coast,” says Shallin Busch, a NOAA ecologist. “This building is not in the best shape but some of the science facilities that are in here are some of the top in the world.”

The essential work that goes on here aims to find out how changing ocean conditions will affect some of the most valuable fisheries, like Dungeness Crab. And small organisms called krill. They’re some of the most important to the marine food chain. They’re hard to study because the dark-loving krill thrive in darkness. They live by day in the dark deep waters and venture to the surface to feed on phytoplankton at night.

“What we’re really interested in,” says Busch, “is how marine resources are going to change: ocean acidification, ocean warming, and the loss of oxygen from the world’s oceans.”

Their labs create environments that they think will exist in the next several decades — more acidic oceans with more ocean heat waves. Often, these waters will have far less oxygen where human runoff from land meets the sea.

“We’re trying to understand how they might be sensitive to this increase in condition,” says McElhany.

The station chief says about a quarter of the CO2 from when we burn from fossil fuels get sucked up the ocean. That’s created chemical changes, McElhany says oceans are about 30% more acidic since the industrial revolution in the early 1800s.

“And we add more CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and that could push us over the edge to some uncharted territory,” says McElhany, “where we’ve never been before.” 

Early results in future water conditions show fewer crab larvae survive—which fish and salmon thrive on—and adult survival rates show declines too. Krill also don’t seem to do as well as either. That’s a big problem for the fish and whales that rely on them. But, many of these studies are just beginning.

And with so many unanswered questions, the good news is that the eyesore of a building is going away. While it took several decades and an act of the U.S. Congress for the Air Force to formally turn over this property to NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration isn’t wasting any time in turning this site into a state of the art building to match the research that’s been happening inside.

While architectural plans have not been finalized, the current building will have to be demolished to make way for the new facility that is expected to be completed in 2022. Because of the proximity to the new ferry terminal, the new building will have an area for the public to visit and understand more about their research and what’s going on underneath the surface of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

“We hope that by helping people understand what the changes might be,” says Busch, “that it can influence what decisions people make today.”