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Friday, January 22, 2016

How Much Time Can We Buy Until High King Tides and a Vanishing Bay Flood Us?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 3:25 PM

click to enlarge TOM HILTON/FLICKR
  • Tom Hilton/Flickr

Richmond’s Point Isabel Regional Shoreline is a beautiful place to take in a foggy bay morning. Unless you’re having a candid conversation about rising sea levels, in which case that overcast sky starts to look more ominous than peaceful.

“The bay is going to rise: We can’t stop it,” the San Francisco Estuary Institute‘s Jeremy Lowe tells me. “And we can’t really reverse it either. The best we can do, and what we are doing, is to try to soften the blow.”

We’re at Point Isabel to look at the last of the winter king tides, the proverbially reliable highest-of-high tides that, locally, tend to occur around federal holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Martin Luther King Day. The kings can swell the bay as much as nine feet, particularly when exacerbated by storm surges and El Niño, but they don’t look like much to the layman. Just another gray day on the bay.

The significance of this last big ebb, Lowe tells me, is that it’s a glimpse of the region’s future. With sea levels projected to rise thanks to higher global temperatures expanding the warming sea and feeding it waters formerly trapped in land-bound ice, today‘s storm-enhanced king tide may be the new normal in 30 years’ time.

If you ask NASA, we can expect maybe 3 feet of bay expansion in the next 100 years. Or if you ask NASA expatriate James Hansen (who quit because he felt that being on the payroll compromised his freedom to criticize the government’s climate-change efforts), it might be an alarming 10 feet over the next 50 years.

But no matter who you ask, the bay projection is always fundamentally the same: There’s going to be more of it. So if a modern extreme tide is the future normal, then what will future extremes be? Well, this might be a good time to start investing in companies that produce waterproof soles.

“We call it nuisance flooding,” Lowe says. “The kind of thing that’s not a Hurricane Katrina-type disaster but still just makes a mess out of transit and shorts out electric systems.”

We expect the rain we’re getting today to run off and flow into the bay, but soon it will have nowhere to go, in which case it’ll just stay put. The sort of soggy, sewage-laden misery complained about in this morning’s Chronicle will become a regular affair. And instead of happening “every 5-10 years,” serious flooding will happen annually —maybe even monthly.

The thing about Lowe, a geomorphologist (the study of beaches, wetlands, and the other squishy and interesting things that dry land turns into when the ocean moves into its neighborhood) from England, is that he sounds less down in the dumps about the future than most people whose work revolves around climate change.

As the Estuary Institute’s senior environmental scientist, he specializes in restoring the Bay Area’s coastal wetlands. Right now, he’s working on turning the millions of cubic feet of dirt dumped into the ocean by dredge mining into raw material for marsh building. He says being a geomorphologist is a lot like being the planet-building aliens in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You get to design the squiggly bits along the coast.”

Wetlands are a natural, “soft” barrier against flooding, slowing creeping waters and absorbing some of their mass. Or, at least they would be if we hadn’t filled in 90 percent of them in the last two centuries.

Still, Lowe and company are upbeat that ongoing restoration efforts can create a new landscape with “much of the value” of the pre-industrial one. He’s adamant that there’s no turning back the tides, and also that regional municipalities are woefully under prepared for them, but at least the encroachment can be slowed down.

“We can buy a century, maybe two,” Lowe says. “We can make it so that it’s something we manage, rather than being the single most prominent things in our lives.”

And unlike other solutions to climate woes, this one is entirely local. “China doesn’t matter this time.”

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Adam Brinklow


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