A King Tide Near You: A Preview of Sea Level Rise

In this photo taken March 9, 2012 the Golden Gate Bridge is shown at Fort Point in San Francisco. It served as a picturesque
In this photo taken March 9, 2012 the Golden Gate Bridge is shown at Fort Point in San Francisco. It served as a picturesque backdrop for Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak’s tensely romantic first meeting in “Vertigo” in 1958, made the cover of Rolling Stone in the ‘70s and was nearly decimated by a falling Romulan drill-of-death in 2009’s “Star Trek.” One way or another, the Golden Gate Bridge has packed a lot of history into its 75-year span. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

A recent article in SF Gate, entitled "Preparing the bay for rising sea levels," reminded me of what I sometimes take for granted. As a spokesperson for drowning islands -- the low-lying coral atoll island countries which face imminent sea level rise inundation -- I have talked with many an islander about the King tide season. If you have never heard of the King tide before, it's a predictable high tide, occurring when the orbit and alignment of the Earth, sun, and moon coincide. They happen a few times each year, from December to February, and they provide a preview of what's to come in coastal shorelines and coastal communities. What now occurs just a few times a year during the King tide, where low-lying areas are flooded beyond recognition, will someday be the year-round reality. On low lying islands in the Pacific, the King tide exaggerates these issues and gives islanders a dreaded sneak peek of what's around the corner. But the King tides don't only happen in the small island countries. There are King tides nearly everywhere the Pacific Ocean touches, including just a mile from my home in Oakland, Calif. For those that pay attention (and depending on your proximity to the water, some people can't help but notice), the King tide provides a window into the future of what sea level rise will do. It also provides us with a better opportunity to visualize and understand what it is like for islanders who live vulnerably close to the rising sea.

The aforementioned article showcases the flood-mitigation conceptual design of architects Elizabeth Ranieri and Byron Kuth. The Bay Area architects entered their ventilated levee design into the International Rising Tides competition in 2008, and were one of the six winners. A system of pump ventilators, called "Folding Water," "would be built into the walls, returning excess water to the sea while mimicking the effects of tidal exchange. Natural pressure would force ocean waters and small sea life into the estuary through one side of these tubes, while the mixed water would be pumped back out the other side." The technology is conceptual at this stage, and could very well remain that way. Not only would it be incredibly costly to implement, but like most other mitigation measures, it would be a controversial addition to the landscape.

Controversial or not, the reality is that the water is rising in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco has the oldest continually operating tidal gauge in the Americas, which has recorded the varying sea levels since 1854. Over the past 100 years, it has tracked an 8-inch rise in water level. It will continue rising, scientists say, and could rise by 1.5 feet by 2050. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has warned that large tracts of land near the bay could regularly flood, threatening airports and other infrastructure, offices and government buildings, and the homes of 100,000 individuals.

Here in the Bay Area, the place my husband and I have called our home for the past five years and truly, completely love, it's easy to feel insulated from so many of the world's problems. We do have earthquakes, but aside from that, it is always a treat to return home to the mild bay weather, and the fresh year-round, local, organic produce. By and large, the people are wonderful and I can easily ride my bike ten or eleven months out of the year. That's probably one of the most wonderful things about being "home" for most people; it's comfortable, and despite the few flaws, humans for the most part love where they land and call "home." But it's more important than ever to remember that we are all impacted by climate change. I travel to far-flung locations all over the globe, visiting backyards and kitchens and graveyards that have been ravaged by waves and saltwater intrusion. But all I have to do is walk out my front door, turn left, and walk straight for a mile to witness the rising tide. That is particularly true this next Feb. 7-9, 2013, during the last King tide of the year. On those few days, I will do just that, and I will take a photographer/videographer with me all along the bay, capturing the waves and noting what a higher sea level might mean in my own backyard. I encourage anyone who lives near the Pacific to do the same, and to send your pictures to drowningislands@gmail.com, or post them to the drowning islands site on Facebook. During the King tide, think about the people in the drowning islands who live 10 feet or less above the level of the sea, and please share your thoughts.