rising sea level, san francisco bay, global warming,
glacial melt

How Worried Should We Be About Rising Sea Levels?

August 16, 2009 08:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A San Francisco design competition calls attention to rising sea levels and rapidly thinning Antarctic glaciers. Some say we should start protecting ourselves now. 

Innovative Approaches to Shoreline Development

Inhabitat, a blog devoted to design, has several images of the six winning proposals from Rising Tides, a competition that challenged entrants to make the liability of high water levels into an asset. Winners include lasers and habitat restoration techniques, among other innovative design features. The impressive scope of entries convinced jurors to award six designers an equal share of the $25,000 pot, instead of choosing just one winner, as was originally planned.

"Taken as a whole, the six winning entries begin to tell a story about adaptation to sea level rise," juror Walter Hood told Inhabitat. Water levels in the San Francisco Bay could rise 55 inches over the next century, a huge liability that sparked the idea for the contest.

"We need to rethink how we build along the shoreline, but we didn't have the answers," Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, explained to John King of the San Francisco Chronicle. The winning design may provide answers. King outlined some of the top proposals when they were announced in mid-July, including the laser levee project submitted by Thom Faulders, an architect from Berkeley.

For more details on each winning proposal, visit the Rising Tides design competition Web site.

Background: Melting ice and rising sea levels

The Rising Tides competition is particularly relevant in light of recent reports warning of rapidly melting glacial ice, which results in rising sea levels.

For the BBC, David Shukman discussed a study at west Antarctica's Pine Island glacier, where the ice surface is dropping even faster than had previously been thought by scientists. "We've known that it's been out of balance for some time, but nothing in the natural world is lost at an accelerating exponential rate like this glacier," Andrew Shepherd of Leeds University told the BBC. Shukman cites a frightening statistic: the glacier's melting rate 15 years ago suggested it would remain intact for 600 years, but the newest data indicates that Pine Island will only be around for 100 more years.

In California, the issue of rising sea levels is not to be taken lightly, researchers say. In a May report, "The Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the California Coast," the Pacific Institute concluded that rising sea levels would "inevitably change the character of the California coast, and that adaptation strategies must be evaluated, tested, and implemented if the risks identified in the report are to be reduced or avoided."

Due to a potential sea level rise of 1.4 meters along the California coast, the report indicates much is at risk: nearly half a million people; a significant portion of infrastructure and natural ecosystems, including wetlands; and about $100 billion in property.

Related Topic: Climate change and the Obama administration

In February, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned that "California's farms and vineyards could vanish by the end of the century" if global warming is not slowed, Jim Tankersley reported for the Los Angeles Times. Chu also unveiled the Obama administration's assertive plans to combat climate change, and called on the American public to wake up to the potentially devastating results of it. "[U]p to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture," Chu said, according to Tankersley.

Opinion & Analysis: Which areas are worth saving?

In April, Scott Thill of AlterNet spoke with Heather Cooley, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute and coauthor of the study "The Impacts of Sea-Level Rise on the California Coast." Cooley suggests there are areas of the U.S. that will be protected should sea levels rise too high and areas that will be abandoned; the process of determining which areas to save must start now, Cooley asserted.

"We first need to ensure that all new developments integrate future sea-level rise into their designs," Cooley told Thill. "This should be done immediately."

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