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Planning Questions Persist Over Sea Level Rise

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Speakers at this week’s sea level planning conference in Oakland cited everybody from H. L. Mencken to Yogi Berra (“You can observe a lot just by watching”). But the primary insight from the event may have been courtesy of Robert Frost: “…miles to go before (we) sleep.”

About 225 representatives from industry, government and academia gathered at the behest of the non-profit Bay Planning Coalition.  The effort was to push forward a planning agenda to help prepare the Bay Area and coastal California for rising sea levels due to the changing climate. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding how much sea level rise we should expect in the decades to come. There were indications at the conference that planners were starting to coalesce around predictions of 16 inches by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100, projections embraced by the state’s formal climate adaptation plan.

Greater still is the uncertainty surrounding how governments, businesses and public agencies will respond to the challenge. Estimates are that rising seas threaten $100 billion of “economic assets” statewide, half of which are in the Bay Area. While most speakers seemed to agree on the urgency of mobilizing a coordinated planning effort, few seemed certain where to start.

The palpable frustration in the room was voiced  by, among others, Calla Rose Ostrander, Climate Action Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to need certainty, to make decisions,” she told me, saying that public agencies in charge of roads and development feel paralyzed. “When we apply for funding for these things,” explained Ostrander, they (potential funders) say ‘How are you planning for it?’ And we haven’t been advised yet on how to plan for it.” That dilemma was echoed by Paul Thayer of the California State Lands Commission: “You can’t engineer for a range of sea level rise,” he said. And yet that would appear to be the task.

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrustructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrastructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Funding is another area that remains fuzzy, amid all the inter-agency discussions, and one that was not substantively addressed at the conference. It is expected that rising seas will require billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The Port of Oakland, for example, is awaiting the outcome of a study to determine what “perimeter defenses” will be needed to keep runways at Oakland International Airport above water.

Several speakers raised concern about rallying public support to confront a threat that is so diffuse. Will Travis, who heads the San Francisco-based Bay Conservation & Development Commission, predicted that “bringing it home” to households with more immediate worries will be the biggest challenge. And yet we can’t wait, warned Travis. “The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes.”

Scientists as well as policymakers are pondering how to respond to rising sea levels. Nicole Heller of our content partner Climate Central recently attended a conference aimed at that end of the issue, and wrote about it in the Climate Central blog.

Robust Discussion of Rising Seas

KQED’s Forum program devoted a full hour this morning to recent projections for sea level rise and the threat it poses to California. Listen to the archived program here.

I joined host Michael Krasny and guests Peter Gleick and Will Travis, to discuss some of the recent findings. Travis heads the Bay Conservation & Development Commission and Gleick’s Pacific Institute issued a new report on the impacts last week.

Travis is just back from a trip to The Netherlands where he was studying some of the engineering techniques that the Dutch have deployed, to keep the North Sea at bay. Gleick has been tracking the issue here in California since 1990.

Gleick’s impact projections were underscored last week when scientists at a climate conference in Copenhagen projected a potential one-meter rise in the mean sea level by the end of this century, depending on how soon and how much we’re able to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty significant adjustment from the 2007 UN report, which had the rise pegged at a foot or two over the same time span. And two months ago, a USGS-led report postulated that a four-foot rise isn’t out of the question.

Some interesting questions and comments that came in from listeners:

– Sewage treatment plants in the Bay Area recently overwhelmed by storms are one glimpse into a future with higher sea levels.

– If pumps that convey water through the giant state and federal water projects in the Central Valley were solar-powered, it would reduce the carbon footprint of moving water around in California (often cited as 20% of our electricity use).

– A barrier at the Golden Gate could help “stem the tide” and potentially be part of a plant generating tidal power (Travis was skeptical).

– The Earth’s rotational bevavior also affects sea level and should be factored in.

In response to a listener who asked about a recent newspaper column that was dismissive of the prevailing climate science, I got the following note from Dave Johnson, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who teaches at Stanford:

“As to the climate-change contrarians, my short-form answer is this: I favor giving the scientifically-credible contrarian point of view some credit, and quite likely more than Al Gore or others would like. Why? Not because they necessarily have the science part right (or closer to right) than the IPCC.  Rather, it’s because the problem itself is a very complex system. Science is just now scoping the boundaries and behaviors of complex systems; to predict their behavior (especially of non-physical systems) will, to paraphrase Edward Witten, require ’22nd century’ knowledge.  As such, we all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.  In short, whether I agree or disagree with the contrarians is, objectively, of no moment whatsoever.  In science, the strongest advocate of a particular conclusion must embrace the most aggressive testing of that conclusion. “

Hard to disagree with that. It’s always perilous to dismiss contrarian views out of hand. Galileo was a contrarian.