Science, Technology

Saved by Goldilocks


When people at Miami cocktail parties learned that John Englander was writing a book about sea level rise, many people took him aside and quietly asked him a question.

“If I sell my oceanfront property in a decade will I be O.K.?”

The answer is that nobody knows when oceanfront real estate will get hit by severe weather or falling prices. Englander’s book, High Tide on Main Street, predicted that a superstorm would sometime in the future hit Atlantic City and the New York metropolitan region. One week after it was published, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the New Jersey shore and sent a 13-foot storm surge into lower Manhattan.

Scientists had warned that rising carbon pollution could deliver such a megastorm, but regional officials and planners thought they had decades to prepare for it.

“Sandy is a wake-up call,” Zack

Wasserman, chairman of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), said at a recent meeting of Climate One, the sustainability initiative of The Commonwealth Club.

The harsh reality is that the Earth’s operating system is spinning out of control faster than many people realize. Many think sea level rise could affect their grandchildren and polar bears. Sandy, which was exacerbated by rising and warming oceans in addition to other factors still being studied, showed that seas that have risen seven inches in the last 100 years are delivering more powerful punches here and now.

That doesn’t sound like much, but Englander notes that “the rate of rise acceleration has doubled in the last 30 years. That’s the first indicator of a problem.”

What does this mean for San Francisco and the Marina?

No one really knows, because planners and experts are just starting to get their head around all this. “The risk assessment that’s necessary for the Bay Area is the first order of business,” says Ezra Rapport, executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments. “And we have not done a good one to date.”

One reason is that doing a regional plan involves myriad local and regional agencies working together on a threat that is abstract and only tangentially connected to their core mission. The closest agency, BCDC, was created to stop the bay from shrinking. The challenge ahead is a bay that will certainly expand.

Another is that climate scientists measure trends over many decades, and their projections typically apply to swaths of land bigger than individual states, let alone counties or cities. That’s a challenge for mayors and county supervisors.

Though the timeframe is uncertain, planners know certain things will need to happen. For example, the runways at Oakland and San Francisco airport will need to be elevated, because building seawalls around them will only shorten the airstrips for planes landing and taking off.

Who’s going to pay for all that? Some officials are counting on Uncle Sam riding to the rescue. Rapport says “that is a risky proposition,” because the federal government will eventually get tired of bailing out coastal cities from disasters.

One regional answer is the creation of a new agency responsible for securing funding and protecting vital infrastructure from the coming storms. The environmental group Save the Bay is planning a regional campaign for a parcel tax in the nine Bay Area counties to restore wetlands that can act as a buffer from surging seas. Melanie Nutter, director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, sees promise in an infrastructure bank that the federal or state government could create to attract private sector capital to infrastructure projects for a Bay Area with rising temperatures and seas.

While government agencies assess the risk and figure out how to pay for property protection, developers are steaming ahead with new buildings in SOMA and Mission Bay. Are the generators of the new hospital at UCSF Mission Bay in the basement where they could be flooded like New York University Langone Medical Center was last year? I recently asked a downtown developer what his company, which had a New York building flooded during Sandy, was doing about projected sea level rise; he groaned and said, “We don’t have a good answer for that.” The Urban Land Institute, an industry group, has set up a committee to study the issue.

One solution being studied for New York is a $10 billion sea gate system that would protect the region from future storm surges. The Bay Area is contemplating something similar, a barrier near the Golden Gate Bridge known as Goldilocks.

“I happen to think that ultimately it might be the solution,” Zack Wasserman said, adding that there is no engineering study and it is premature to say that is the way to go. One problem is how blocking water at the Gate would impact coastal communities outside the bay. Turning the Sunset District into a wetland would probably not be an acceptable consequence of protecting the Marina, downtown, and other low lying areas.

As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, there are a lot of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The future of the Marina district and the rest of the City are full of both as we enter the era of climate disruption. One thing is certain: Dealing with the local impacts is going to be expensive. Living along the California coast has never been cheap, and we haven’t seen anything yet.

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Greg Dalton is the host of Climate One, a project of The Commonwealth Club of California. A podcast of all Climate One programs, including the "Bracing for Impact" shows featuring the speakers quoted in this article, are available free in the iTunes Store.

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