Last month, as Californians gathered for Thanksgiving, San Diego’s sea level surged to its highest level since scientists began recording it in 1906.
As turkeys were carved and Black Friday sales were surveyed, as televisions flickered with news of the coming climate change talks in Paris, salt water rushed onto coastal roads and rose up out of inland storm drains, driven by King Tide and El Niño conditions. La Jolla’s sea level set a record. So did Santa Barbara’s.
North of Santa Cruz, waves pounded away at the bluffs on Mirada Surf Beach and eroded the edges of pavement in Fremont. The Highway 101 offramp to Highway 1 was closed because of inundation in Mill Valley. In San Francisco, surf overtopped the Embarcadero and submerged signs near the piers.
In the narrowest sense, the salty assault was the result of warmer, expanding water and the earth, moon and sun aligning in a way that makes high tides higher.
But it was also a taste of the future. The sea level is rising, separately and more slowly from those aggravating factors. In a couple of decades, climate scientists say, global warming will put what is now the edge of the continent under at least a foot of new seawater, and those aforementioned Thanksgiving water levels will be the new normal.
Melting glaciers and thermal expansion from warmer oceans will add 3 to 5 feet, and maybe much more, to the baseline sea level by century’s end – enough salt water, even at the low estimates, to wreck wastewater treatment plants in the Bay Area and L.A., or shut down the runways at San Francisco International Airport, or salinate the fresh groundwater relied upon by coastal farmers.
The threat to our infrastructure will be felt by every taxpayer in California, and policymakers here have done more than most states to begin to address it. But it’s happening in slow motion, and with so many more immediate concerns, from terrorists to mass shootings, most of the rest of us are only vaguely attuned to it.
Enter Marina Psaros, co-founder of the California King Tides Project, a citizen-science initiative that for six years has been waging its own slow-mo stealth operation on the state’s coasts.
The premise is simple: Wait for extreme high-water events such as the Thanksgiving King Tides, then ask the public to post pictures of the nuisance flooding. What’s underwater is a preview of sea levels in coming decades, and what’s just out of the water’s range is what will get flooded by future El Niños and King Tides.
“Polar bears drowning far away just isn’t something people can wrap their heads around,” said Psaros, a planner who used to work with local governments through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program.
But seeing the Pacific Ocean slosh up to the edge of Highway 1? That’s vivid.
Since it was launched in 2009 (“I remember because that’s the year my daughter was born,” Psaros said), the project’s massive photo collection has informed countless sea-level studies, bringing the future to life in vulnerability assessments and mathematical models.
Initially, she said, the project consisted of a handful of climate scientists and planners, with similar initiatives in Washington, Oregon, Canada and Australia. Now, however, the California photographers alone number in the hundreds.
“We probably have a couple thousand images on our Flickr page,” she said, adding that the initiative has inspired at least two California spinoffs – a Bay Area high school project in which students are collecting data, photos and oral histories for local government studies, and a broader citizen-science effort documenting sea-level rise in Southern California.
“Some people are super-engaged,” she said. “Some are coastal enthusiasts, or people who care about flooding because they work for Caltrans. But some are just people who snap a shot while they’re walking in along the Embarcadero or in Malibu.”
As negotiators from around the world wrapped up this week at the United Nations’ climate summit, it was instructive to peruse the King Tide photos. (Go to california.kingtides.net to see them.) If Paris has been the top-down, international face of climate action, people such as Psaros are the grass roots.
“When people talk about climate change, it’s so hard to feel empowered,” she said. “It just sounds like a giant disaster. But projects like this show people how to do something about it.”
Each contribution, she says, tells scientists and planners a little more about how best to prepare for what’s coming.
“It’s not very sexy. But that’s how we ask the hard questions and think the hard thoughts. We help a scientist. Or go to a meeting. What do we want our communities to look like? How do we want our kids to grow up here?”
Every picture, in other words, tells part of the story. The next King Tide is expected on the days leading up to Christmas. If you’re near the coast, grab a camera and join in.