King Tides Offer California a Preview of Sea Level Rise (With Photo Slideshow)
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
Did California just get a glimpse of what future sea level may look like? California experienced King Tides, especially high tides, during early February. The King Tides come three times a year, predicted because of the orbit and alignment of the Earth, sun, and moon. I was interested in tracking them because I am an advocate for low-lying islands and coastal communities, and I frequently write about issues facing these islanders from an eye-witness perspective. The timing of the latest King Tide in California turned out to be poignant, as the Solomon Islands experienced an earthquake and subsequent tsunami that took lives and again challenged the world to think about the way communities are shaped and sometimes traumatized by the water.
Islanders who live mere inches or feet above sea level tell horrific stories about the King Tides, which bring waves crashing over sea walls, flooding homes, and sometimes washing over entire islands. So for me, King Tides were the stuff of legends. While I knew they occurred all over the world, I thought about them mostly on the drowning islands, such as Kiribati and Tuvalu, that poke just above sea level. For this King Tide season, I decided to stay close to home in California's Bay area, chasing waves in my own backyard with a photographer.
I wanted to explore the extent of California's vulnerability to sea level rise through the use of the elevated waves, showing what's to come in the future as climate change continues. I really didn't know what to expect, but thought it would be an interesting way to examine the differences and similarities between my home and the low-lying islands around the globe when it comes to dealing with big waves.
The King Tide came to the Bay area in the early morning on February 7, 8, and 9. Photographer Jamie Jones of Jamie Jones photography and I traveled around Marin County, the bay in Alameda County, the base of the San Mateo bridge, the city of Pacifica and the Highway 1 coast, and the waterfront in San Francisco. Our visits were well timed, hitting each of our locations at its highest tide, starting early in the morning at the coast, and finishing deep in the bay around noon.
The pictures (below) speak loudly and strikingly convey the fact that the Bay area is in trouble, as sea levels are predicted to continue rising. San Francisco has the oldest continually operating tidal gauge in the Americas, which has recorded the level of the sea since 1854. Over the course of the past century, the gauge has tracked an 8-inch rise in water level. Scientists say that the level will continue rising, and could swell by 1.5 feet by 2050.
Let there be no mistake about it: the King Tide signals danger for the heavily populated Bay area. For instance, the slideshow includes photographs of sea walls in Pacifica overtaken by crashing waves. I stood about twenty feet from one of the walls, sandwiched congruently between the Pacific and apartment building doors, my rain-boots and jacket soaked from the encroaching water. As climate change worsens, the waves crashing over the barrier walls won't simply happen a few times year during the King tide. Waves encroaching onto homes could become the norm.
I drove across the San Mateo bridge, which carries nearly 100,000 cars on an average day, and saw how close the water was to the bridge and also to the buildings that border the land on both sides. Later I stood in standing water, growing with each surge the waves brought, on the busy and beautiful Embarcadero in San Francisco, with cars and businesses and tourists and San Francisco residents buzzing all around, some quite taken aback as water spilled into their city.
But, importantly, some of those onlookers didn't notice a thing. No matter which site of flooding or surging waves we visited, for every one person who was curious, there were several that didn't notice a thing. It turns out that San Francisco is not a drowning island - our environmental concerns are certainly present, but low-lying islanders experience environmental severity, one large wave at a time, much more severely than we do.
While we are not immune to the devastating and costly impacts of sea level rise, there is just almost no way to compare even the worst tides here with the best tides on the flat, small island nations of Tuvalu, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Maldives. Each of those island nations is unbelievably vulnerable to storm surges and waves. If you stand at the sea during the King tide on one of Tuvalu's tiny islands, the water might very wall wash from one side to the other.
While the Bay Area is impacted, and will continue to be impacted, by sea level rise, the biggest lesson learned from King Tide is how very safe we are in comparison to those most vulnerable to sea level rise. I did not set out with this intention. But it is remarkably true that those that contribute the least to global warming and our changing climate suffer the most from it. That was abundantly clear during the King Tide.