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!