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New Sea Level Projections Give Us Sinking Feeling

NASA's former lead climate scientist predicts that bay rise will render most of region uninhabitable. Enjoy your weekend.


And now, another update on the vague sense of existential dread lingering over the entire state of California. If earthquakes, fires, drought, and (ironically) flash floods haven’t scared the bejeezus out of you yet, consider the creeping insurgency of the ocean. You may have noticed that San Francisco is a coastal city (no, really, it’s true), and that sea levels are rising. Most of us like the ocean right where it is, so this is a discouraging development.

How serious could this get? Well, NASA previously estimated that ocean levels could rise three to five feet over the next 100 years. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission guesses the rise could approach six feet. Now, James Hansen, a former NASA climatologist, has produced a truly terrifying report that suggests a 10 foot rise in 50 years or so.

Hansen and his 16 co-authors lay it out for us: Coastal cities would have to be abandoned and "conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization." Well come on man, give it to us straight, we don't have time for sugarcoating.

We know what you’re thinking: Is there perhaps a disquieting interactive map that will illustrate this action? With a three foot rise, Mission Bay and Hunter's Point start to vanish. At six feet, the 101 south of Ceasar Chavez Blvd becomes a scenic bayfront roadway. Approaching 10 feet, we've lost the airport, Treasure Island, AT&T Park and almost all of the waterfront, and the waterline is actually approaching Mission Street in some places. But we'd be getting off lucky: Alameda would be half submerged. West Oakland would be uninhabitable. Foster City and East Palo Alto would be gone. Coyote Hills Park becomes Coyote Island, and bay waters are lapping at North San Jose.

You have permission to freak out.

If you need a security blanket, note that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. Could be Hansen is completely wrong and we might only have to cope with the moderately disastrous six foot swamping instead. Great.

Is there anything we can do? The big minds are SPUR put forth some suggestions a few years ago: We can build on existing shoreline and rebuild places that are lost,  “armoring“ the coast and keeping waves out; we can actually increase the elevation of low-lying areas (less crazy than it sounds when you consider that much of it is fill-in to begin with.); we can become a Venice-like floating city. Or we can just leave. Since none of those other plans accounted for the accelerated timetable in this most recent study, the latter option might be the only practical one. Remember, this mass flight is the trigger that Hansen predicts will cripple civilization. This guy must be great at parties.

We can only hope that as time goes by science will have an even more clear idea of what’s going to happen and access to new tools to stop it. But the bay was here a long time before we were and will endure long after, so there’s no waiting it out. It’s a patient and implacable foe, and like the saying goes: Water finds a way…



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