King Tides Foreshadow Rising Seas

A man rides his bike slowly along the flooded bike path at Bothin Marsh, Marin, CA. The flooding is the result of the King Tides this past week.

Due to the slow but steady nature of ocean expansion, sea level rise has a tendency to be dismissed as a far-off predicament, not as an immediate threat. But with seas expected to rise 16 inches in the Bay Area by 2050, flooding 180,000 acres of coastline, the issue is now at our doorstep. Literally.

Last Thursday, sea levels peaked at over 10 feet in some places in the Bay Area during the highest King Tides event of 2012. The tides last week offered us a glimpse into the future of the California coastline: closing roads, flooding parking lots, and threatening to overwhelm levees from Marin to Santa Clara Counties.

A quarterly occurrence that reaches far back in history, the ultra-high King Tides are the result of a strong gravitational pull exerted by the Sun and the Moon – not climate change. But scientists say they offer important insight of how rising sea levels will impact coastal regions in years to come.

The combination of rapidly melting ice sheets and the thermal expansion of the ocean as it absorbs atmospheric and land-generated heat places sea level rise on an unstoppable trajectory that could raise the sea 16 feet in 300 years. Since experts agree that the reversal of rising seas is not possible, the risk for low-lying coastal areas will only increase. In the Bay Area, 81 schools, 11 fire stations, 9 police stations, and 42 healthcare facilities will be underwater or exposed to high flood events by 2100, when seas are expected to rise by 55-inches. Additionally, an estimated 270,000 people in the Bay will be at risk if no adaptive measures are taken – a 98 percent increase of those who are currently at risk.

Our approach to sea level rise must not mimic our approach to one-time natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes, in which we can recover and rebuild. Instead, the permanence of sea rise calls for a focus on adaption. It is more important than ever to propose plans to avoid the potential disaster of rising waters. One of the best solutions? Tidal marshland.

Tidal marsh and wetland habitat act as sponges during high tides, storm surges, and river flooding. They work to attenuate wave action that contributes to erosion. Since 40 percent of California’s land drains to the San Francisco Bay – contributing to longer-lasting flood events – wetlands have the substantial and crucial task of soaking up water from both land and sea.

Action now to protect and restore the Bay’s wetlands is essential and will help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Many Bay Area residents are becoming part of the solution by volunteering their time to restore these protective marshes. Sign-up to volunteer with Save The Bay’s winter planting season!

Wonky Wednesday | Wetlands, Barrier Islands, and Oyster Reefs: Buffering the Next Superstorm

Long Island Barrier Island
This image was taken crossing over Fire Island from the Atlantic Ocean and approaching MacArthur Airport, Long Island, NY. Photo: Ken Konrad bluesguy682000@yahoo.com

Less than a day after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie tweeted to his fellow New Jersey residents, “We will rebuild the Shore. It may not be the same, but we will rebuild.” Reality TV icon Snooki and her fellow cast members from “Jersey Shore” followed suit, joining a large fundraising effort to rebuild the boardwalks and amusement parks that define New Jersey’s coastal communities. Christie’s firm pledge and Snooki’s fundraising efforts are evidence of the human capacity to be resilient in the wake of Sandy.

Yet we must look to the causes of the disaster and adapt to the changing conditions of our climate and our rising oceans. Are there places that just don’t make sense for development?

Rewind human history a couple hundred years and we find that the New Jersey shoreline, now filled to the ocean’s edge with beach bungalows, theme parks, and mansions with oceanfront views, was once void of development and rimmed with vast acres of wetlands, strings of small barrier islands, and offshore oyster reefs. These ecological gems are nature’s solution to storm events, protecting the mainland from erosion and flooding.

Wetlands are the lungs of the ocean, absorbing large volumes of water runoff during rainstorms and tidal inflow. Barrier islands act as flexible walls that separate the mainland from the sea, changing shape in response to storms, tides, and winds as they minimize the force of these natural events. Oyster reefs attenuate storm energy, slowing down waves before they hit land. While these ecological barriers have slowly disappeared over the past two centuries due to fill, water pollutants, and large-scale developments, their value has only increased.

In New Jersey, along with so many heavily-urbanized coastal regions – such as the San Francisco Bay Area – the lack of sufficient natural barriers to storm surges is in need of serious attention.  New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state, with 60% of its 8.6 million residents living along its coastline – including more than 236,000 people within 5 feet of the high-tide line. With sea levels expected to rise by 15 inches by 2050, the number of people that are impacted by heavy storms – not to mention large scale disasters like Sandy – will increase exponentially.

Hurricane Sandy is our second loud wake-up call, coming only 7 years after Hurricane Katrina. If we are to survive the future of rising seas and intense storms, our relationship to Mother Nature must change from coercion and command to adaption and flexibility. Preserving and restoring our natural buffers – wetlands, barrier islands, coral reefs and more – is one of the best tools we have available.