Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Is California prepared for the impact of rising sea levels?

by Molly Peterson | Take Two®

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Cindy Minnix wades through a flooded street to get a bus near where protesters were calling on the presidential candidates to talk about their plans to fight climate change on October 18, 2012 in Miami Beach, Florida. Some of the streets on Miami Beach are flooded due to unusually high tides that the protesters felt are due to rising seas, which are connected to global warming and climate change. Published reports indicate that Florida ranks as the most vulnerable state to sea-level rise, with some 2.4 million people, 1.3 million homes and 107 cities at risk from a four-foot rise in sea levels. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Superstorm Sandy put much of the eastern seaboard underwater as record storm surges batter the shore.

A thirteen-foot bulge of water hit lower Manhattan yesterday, flooding the subway and the financial district.

It's the highest water level recorded in a century.

What does climate change have to do with Sandy? 

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a character named Bill asks the protagonist, Mike, “How did you go bankrupt?” Mike says, “Two ways…gradually, then suddenly.”

The world's oceans have swelled by at least eight inches over the last century; in one sense, climate change has had a gradual impact on how this storm hit places in New York like the Battery.

But it’s sudden too, as when an extreme weather event like a “superstorm” hits. Scientists this year at the UK Met Office and the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration found heightened probabilities of extreme weather events, like storms, flooding, and drought; their unprecedented results were published in peer-reviewed studies this summer.

The year’s biggest climate news was the record observed low for Arctic polar ice. The Arctic isn’t connected to extreme weather directly; you can’t say that melting ice means bigger storms in New Jersey. But melting polar ice does warm up seawater; warmer sea water has greater volume. Temperature and water volume are among the elements of a storm forming over the Atlantic, for example; changing them changes the storm’s recipe.

How are coastal cities vulnerable to Sandy-like storms, especially, you know, California’s cities?

American cities along all coasts are vulnerable the way New York has been. Sandy revealed it: subways flooded, electricity lines blown up or down, salt water flooding into pumping and power equipment.

California doesn’t have the population density that puts New York at risk, and it’s not as low-lying as a place like New Orleans. But research funded by the state’s Ocean Protection Council shows that a 55-inch sea-level rise coupled with a 100-year storm event places almost half a million people and $100 billion in property along the coast at risk.

In the Golden State (and Oregon and Washington), the National Research Council amassed a team of scientists who say that sea level rise up to 6 feet is possible with the century.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is inland, but its land is subsiding faster than other places in California, raising its risk from rising seas. In the Bay Area, the San Francisco and Oakland airports adjoin the bay waters.

Along Southern California’s coast, areas where development crowds the Pacific, like Newport, Huntington Beach, and Malibu, are talking about sea level rise in local public meetings.

Is anyone doing anything about the risks from sea level rise?

Three broad categories of policies address climate risk from rising seas. You can build sea walls, to guard against water. You can raise coastal structures, to try to place them out of water’s way. Or you can move your community inland. None of these options is politically expedient; all are costly.

Four years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order directing state agencies to develop a climate adaptation strategy and consider a range of sea-level rise scenarios for the years 2050 and 2100.

California now has 16 state agencies and other entities on a task force. Together they’ve created a planning document, to outline how to respond to climate risk. Separately, they’re figuring out their responsibilities. Like a lot of other people and groups, California officials working on this problem are anticipating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment report, about physical science, slated to come out next year. 

Nationally, the picture is murky, too. There’s no agreement among authorities about whether climate risk is a federal, state or local responsibility. It’s easier to convene a blue ribbon panel of experts to study an issue than it is to apportion responsibility, political and financial, for a problem. Legislation, like the climate bill a few years ago, that provides funding for managing climate risk tends to get turned back.

As a result, federal and state agencies have been assessing climate change impacts on sea levels for 25 years. When something like a Superstorm Sandy hits, nobody wants them to stop. But counting, at least, the producers at Take Two, some people start asking questions about what else those agencies can do. 

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