Climate Change Chipping Away at the Coast

USGS: Warmer ocean temps portend more erosion along the West Coast

This week researchers at the US Geological Survey (USGS) issued a damage report that assesses how badly El Nino patterns tore up West Coast beaches during the winter of 2009-2010. Up and down the coast, the survey logged beach erosion 36% above average. The study’s authors point to the intensity of the El Nino conditions during that time, as well as a geological shift in the region of warmer water. They say high water, heavy storms and warmer waters were the culprits. And they warn that with the changing climate, these events may become more common.

“This little winter is a snapshot of what climate change may look like where we have baseline higher sea levels and more significant storms.” said Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist with the USGS in Santa Cruz.

A sign warning of cliff erosion in Santa Cruz. (Photo: Craig Miller)

One Bay Area snapshot the authors highlighted was San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. The thin coast retreated more than 184 feet, dumping the southbound lane of the Great Highway onto the beach. It took nine months before the lane was reopened and the clean-up cost $5 million.

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Storm Surges and King Tides

Pacific storm makes for some high tides and scary waves on the Bay

Waves slosh on to San Francisco's Embarcadero during Thursday's "king tide" (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Take naturally-occurring extremely high tides, and add to them high winds and torrential rain, and you get some pretty big seas.

At least, that’s what I got out on the San Francisco Bay today.  How big exactly, is hard to say (our uneducated guessed ran the gamut), but they were big enough to wash over the bow of our 26-foot boat on more than one occasion and to keep most of us aboard holding on for dear life for much of the three-hour voyage.   What I can say for sure is that as I type this blog post, four hours later, my body still feels like I’m rolling up and down and back and forth on some stormy seas.

We braved the weather today to check out the latest round of “king tides” and see how they affect low-lying shorelines in places like Crissy Field, Treasure Island, and SFO. The seas were so rough that we didn’t make it all the way to the airport, but we did see waves crashing over the sea wall along the Embarcadero  just south of the Ferry Building (see video below). At Crissy Field, the beach was nearly submerged and a small footbridge near the mouth of the estuary was almost awash. Continue reading

Photograph High Tides, Glimpse the Future?

High tide at Pier 14 in San Francisco on January 19, 2011 (Photo: Jack Gregg)

This week another round of extremely high tides will hit the California coast, providing a glimpse of what the state can expect as sea levels continue to rise. These “king tides” will roll in from February 16th through the 18th, with the highest swells expected on the morning of the 17th, between 7:30 and 9 a.m.

A consortium of environmental groups is again calling for help documenting these high tides. The San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Reserve (NERR), which is spearheading the local effort, has set up a Flickr site where members of public can share their photos.  Organizers launched the site last month, in time for the king tides in January, and since then more than 80 photos have been uploaded by dozens of contributors. Continue reading

Center to Study Climate Impacts on Ocean

Federal officials this week launched a new climate change research center, designed to be a hub for studies on the impacts of climate change on the San Francisco Bay and coastline.

The tidal gauge off of San Francisco's Fort Point is the oldest in North America.

The Ocean Climate Center is housed in a collection of century-old military buildings on the edge of the Bay at Crissy Field. It couldn’t be a more picturesque — and critical — location. Adjacent to the oldest tidal gauge in North America, the center will allow cash-strapped federal agencies to pool resources into climate change research and work with natural resource managers to combat negative impacts on the marine ecosystem and communities along the coastline. Continue reading

Offshore Wind’s Google Boost

Google makes a billion-dollar bet on offshore wind–but not on this coast.

When Google announced that it was taking a nearly 40% stake in a $5 billion underwater transmission line to serve offshore wind farms that haven’t been built, nobody even seemed to flinch. Such is the effect of having the Google imprimatur on renewable energy projects.

The Nysted wind farm, off the coast of Denmark. The US presently has no offshore wind generation.

According to reports, the cable would run for 350 miles, about 20 miles off the Atlantic coast, connecting yet-to-be-built wind energy turbines to the mainland and to each other. It would not connect the only offshore wind farm to so far win approval from the federal Department of the Interior, the long-contested Cape Wind project off Massachusetts. Continue reading

Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Paddling the Coast for Climate Clues


Lane Hartman, Ian Montgomery, and Michael Taylor. Photo courtesy of Ian Montgomery.

Three Stanford students are starting a summer trip down the California coast today. They’ll be enjoying the views and the ocean breeze, but not from a convertible cruising down Highway 1. They’re kayaking from Monterey to San Diego. It’s going to take 2 months.

“If we walked we could go faster,” says Ian Montgomery, a sophomore Earth Systems major. He’s making the 400-mile trip with Lane Hartman and Michael Taylor. The three are united by, as they explain on their blog, a “love for surfing and great bodies of water” (Montgomery is from Southern California, Hartman and Taylor are from Michigan and the Marshall Islands, respectively).

Montgomery expects the slow pace (about 10 miles a day) and the sheer novelty of the expedition will provide opportunities to talk to locals about changes they’ve seen along the coast. The students will stop along the way to talk to ecologists, representatives from environmental groups, fishermen, and coast residents.

The students did a test run earlier this week.

Photo: Lane Hartman.

The intertidal zone is an interesting place to study climate change, explains Montgomery, because there are so many variables: air temperature, water temperature, tidal action, and human impacts.

As the students travel they won’t just be collecting anecdotal evidence. They’ll take note of what animals they see in the water and also take pictures of the intertidal zone as they go along. By photographing a 25 centimeter by 25 centimeter square a day, they’ll create a series of snapshots of what lives where on the California coast.

They’ll be able to compare their findings with research from last century done by  marine biologist–and friend of John Steinbeck’s–Ed Ricketts. Montgomery unearthed Ricketts’s records of what species lived in the intertidal zone in Monterey in the ’20s and ’30s (some of the records are singed on the edges, survivors of a fire that tore through Ricketts’s lab in the 1930s). Montgomery suspects they’ll find that species have moved since then, pressed north by warmer temperatures. He already knows some have, like the tube snail (serpulorbis squamigerus), a species that was once limited to Southern California, but is now common in Monterey Bay.

You can follow their progress and see pictures from the trip on the students’ blog.

Study Eyes Climate Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems

Farallone Islands (Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA)

Farallon Islands. Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA

The north-central California coast is likely to experience rising seas, more extreme weather events and coastal erosion, increased ocean acidity, and shifting marine habitats as a result of climate change, according to a new report released today from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, “Climate Change Impacts: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries,” was developed in collaboration with 16 agencies and organizations and was released today at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“This report provides insight into how climate change will play out in our region, how the ocean environment in the Gulf of the Farallones and over Cordell Bank will change and how the organisms that live there will be impacted by it,” said the report’s lead author, oceanographer John Largier of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and UC Davis.

Largier was careful to explain that the report does not make predictions about the future, nor is it a complete assessment of current conditions.

“It’s a group of scientists getting together and making their best judgment of how things are changing, how things will change, and what are we most concerned about,” said Largier.

Topping the list of concerns, he said, are rising sea levels of approximately 1.5 meters by 2100, warming oceans, an increase in the variability of precipitation (drier dry years and wetter wet ones), and ocean acidification, which he called, “the other CO2 problem,” and stressed as both a global and regional concern.

“There are a lot of things we know that are happening.  The real question we have to figure out now is how much this could all this change the ecosystem,” said Largier.  “The system is so complex, it’s not totally clear how it’s going to evolve.  Some populations might do a lot better with climate change, and others are going to be hammered. ”


Image: NOAA

The report makes some recommendations for the sanctuaries, including a greater focus on public education, implementing policies that allow for flexibility and adaptation to change, and mitigating other factors that impact the ecosystem such as pollution, invasive species, fishing, and infrastructure development.

“We are just now getting to the state where we say what does climate change mean for us, for my community?” said Largier.  “It’s warming, sure, but what does it mean for ‘here’?  How is it going to play out? And what are the things that are going to happen that really matter at a regional and local level?  This is a huge scientific challenge that we are struggling with, but it’s an essential management and policy challenge.”

Bill Douros, the West Coast Regional Director of NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary program expressed the same sentiment in his opening remarks at the Cal Academy today.

“As we all know, the ocean is going to warm, it’s going to get more acidic, sea levels are going to rise, and those concepts are important, but what’s really important to someone who might be managing those marine protected areas is “How much?” and “By when are the sea levels going to rise and temp going to increase?”  And that’s what this report today provides to us.”

Key Issues highlighted in the report:
⇒ Observed increase in sea level (100-year record at mouth of San Francisco Bay)

⇒ Expected increase in coastal erosion associated with changes in sea level and storm waves

⇒ Observed decrease in spring runoff of freshwater through San Francisco Bay (decreased Sierra snowpack)

⇒ Observed increase in precipitation variability (drier dry years, wetter wet years)

⇒ Observed increase in surface ocean temperature off the continental shelf
(50 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in winds driving coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters and
associated observed decrease in surface ocean temperature over the continental
shelf (30 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in extreme weather events (winds, waves, storms)

⇒ Expected decrease in seawater pH, due to uptake of CO2 by the ocean

⇒ Observed northward shift of key species (including Humboldt squid, volcano
barnacle, gray whales, bottlenose dolphins)

⇒ Possible shift in dominant phytoplankton (from diatom to dinoflagellate blooms)

⇒ Potential for effects of climate change to be compounded by parallel
environmental changes associated with local human activities

The Rain in May Falls Mainly Near the Mean

Rainbow following late spring rains in Vallejo. Photo: Craig Miller

Rainbow following late spring rains in Vallejo. Photo: Craig Miller

Just a passing admonishment from meteorologist Jan Null, who keeps meticulous, often eye-opening records of weather patterns in northern California: We can stop talking about the “unusual weather” we’ve been having.

In California’s Mediterranean climate, precipitation tapers off to virtually nothing between June and October. So any rain this close to the end of “the rainy season” tends to create some buzz.

But Null, a former forecaster with the National Weather Service and founder of his own weather consulting firm, pointed out in an email this week that “the amount and number of days (with rain) so far in May are right near the 30-year normals for San Francisco and San Jose.” Null confirmed for me this morning that:

“So far in May, San Francisco has had three days of rain for a total of 0.44 inches.  The May normal is 3.3 days of rain for a total of 0.54 inches.  Last year, there were 5 days of rain for a total of 0.80 inches.  Even if there is a little more rain (this week), it will be pretty close to a normal May.

Similarly in San Jose the normal is 0.44 inches in 3.0 days. So far in May 2010 there have been three days of rain totaling 0.19 inches.  Last year San Jose had 0.09 inches over three days.”

By George, I think we’ve got it.

The Bay Area’s weather has been unusually cool, however. Null says the April-May period could end with “dramatic cool averages.” He says average daily highs for the two months could be “on the order of three to five degrees below normal.”

Null regularly updates local weather statistics on his website.

Another Whack at a Federal Climate Bill

87767226The latest version of a federal climate bill sets a series of national targets for greenhouse gas emissions and would halt California’s plans for state and regional carbon trading.

Unveiled by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman today, the American Power Act aims to push GHG emissions down to slightly below 2005 levels by 2013, then sets a longer-term reduction timetable of 83% (of 2005 levels) by 2020, 58% by 2030, 17% by 2050 (or to flip it around, an 83% reduction from 2005 levels by 2050), in line with the promise that President Obama made following the “Copenhagen Accord.”

The 987-page bill regulates seven greenhouse gases, with room for the Environmental Protection Agency to add others under the Clean Air Act. The cap-and-trade provisions focus on “7,500 factories and power plants,” which is to say those that put out more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon per year. That’s the same benchmark used by the federal EPA in its proposed regulations.

Like previous drafts, this one nullifies state and regional carbon regulation, setting up “one clear set of rules” for industry and providing “compensation for the revenues lost as a result of the termination of their cap-and-trade programs,” such as California’s AB 32, and regional efforts, such as the Western Climate Initiative. California’s Legislative Analyst has estimated that the state has committed about $120 million so far, to the implementation of its 2006 climate law. California regulators have already weighed in on the concept of “federal preemption,” warning against leaving the job of carbon reduction to the federal government alone. The Kerry-Lieberman bill requires “consultation” with states that currently have their own emissions plans.

Significantly, the first several sections of the Senate bill address development of energy sources. The reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions aren’t even spelled out completely until page 265. Energy provisions that may come to bear on California policy include:


– All farms appear to be exempt from cap & trade but benefit from offset programs

Oil Industry:

– According to a summary of the bill from Kerry’s office: “Producers and importers of refined products” will get a fixed price for their carbon allowances.

– Offshore drilling is included as part of the energy strategy but states can prohibit leasing within 75 miles of the coast

Nuclear Power:

– Provides several incentives, including an “expedited procedure for issuing combined construction & operating licenses for qualified new nuclear reactors.”

– Increases loan guarantees to $54 billion

Missing from the bill is a comprehensive national strategy for storage of spent nuclear fuel, an unresolved issue that prevents California utilities from any expansion of nuclear power.

Governor Schwarzenegger issued a statement that barely acknowledged federal preemption, saying only that “California has been an unparalleled leader in clean energy, pioneering policies that have benefited the entire nation, and we must be able to continue our important, groundbreaking work that will both improve the environment and help our economy.”

Some environmentalists have already responded with raspberries. In a statement based on draft summaries of the bill, the group Friends of the Earth called it “dangerous,” claiming that the bill would “scrap crucial tools for solving the climate crisis” and provide “billions in giveaways to corporate polluters.” In a statement from the Environmental Defense Fund, on the other hand, its western regional vice president said that the bill’s announcement “marks real progress in the fight against climate change.”

Andrea Seabrook reported on the bill’s rollout and prospects for NPR’s All Things Considered.