California is facing a possible loss of billions to its economy thanks to sea level rise — an outcome for which it is “woefully unprepared” according to a new report from the state’s legislature.
The report, picked up by the San Francisco Examiner, was recently released by the Assembly Select Committee on Sea Level Rise and the California Economy. This committee held a string of hearings around the state to collect testimony from scientists and industry leaders on just what the state can expect from sea level rise, and what the consequences could be for its economy and infrastructure.
In particular, the report highlighted data from the United States’ oldest operating sea level gauge, which sits at Fort Point in the San Francisco Bay. It shows a seven-inch rise in the local sea level over the last one hunted years. The report then pointed to a 2012 analysis by the National Research Council, which said California should prepare for another three feet of sea level rise by 2100 — and that low-lying areas such as the San Francisco International Airport could start flooding within decades.
Sea level rise can in fact occur at different speeds from region to region, and California in particular faces a faster pace than surrounding states. That’s because of likely higher local sea levels driven by El Niño climate patterns, and because portions of the state south of Cape Mendocino are subsiding thanks to tectonic plate movement.
The Select Committee’s report pointed to storms and king tides that have flooded the Bay Area in recent years as the kind of events that can be exacerbated by sea level rise, and which herald the “new norm” for the state. Flooding could also bring salt water from the ocean into coastal aquifers, contaminating the state’s supply of drinking water, and coastal erosion could do away with some of the natural buffers that protect coastal communities.
Agriculture, fishing, and tourism are the industries the report expects will be hardest-hit by sea level rise, and airports, shipping ports, and other coastal infrastructure will also be impacted. Back in July, the City Council of Oxnard, California, put a moratorium on the construction of a new natural gas plant that would sit just 500 yards from the ocean during high tide, citing sea level rise as the long-term problem with the plan.
“Building critical infrastructure, like power plants, in increasingly impacted coastal flood zones is not smart planning decision, now or in the future,” Lily Verdone, Project Director for the Ventura County sea level rise projection maps for the Nature Conservancy, told ThinkProgress in an email. “There’s a place for critical infrastructure and it’s not in areas that will be threatened by sea level rise and flooding.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates a global sea level rise of one to three feet by 2100. But complicating factors like the quickening collapse of Greenland’s glaciers and the effectively irreversible loss of the West Antarctic’s glacial ice could drive sea level rise beyond the three-foot mark. For instance, other studies project global sea level rise of 40 inches by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their business-as-usual course.
The Select Committee also made a number of recommendations for grappling with the threat of rising seas, including coordinated planning across jurisdictions to decide when to “armor” the coast, and when simply retreating from the shore would be the best option. It also recommended bulking up funding for existing grant programs, as well as creating new funding sources like a revolving state loan program to encourage adaptation efforts by communities around California. Unfortunately, the report also noted that insufficient funding in the state’s budget is a big practical hurdle to carrying through on any of those efforts.
Finally, the report also suggested increasing public education and awareness of sea level rise, and creating “a continued repository for science in the state in order to make educated policy decisions.”