Category Archives: sea level rise

Lost Cities of the California Coast

After a hiatus to pursue my Low Carbon Diet project, I’m BACK, working on a new project, Lost Cities of the California Coast.

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It explores how people in California cities will respond to rising sea levels over the coming decades through participatory art and creative writing. Here’s a summary:

With sea level rising for the foreseeable future, the coastal communities of California will face unprecedented change in the coming decades. How will each city respond? With higher levees and armored sea walls to hold back the tide? With “managed retreat” to higher ground? With redesigned infrastructure and new technologies that allow their coastal zones to be flexible use areas that accommodate the rising tide line?

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Lost Cities of the California Coast imagines California from a future vantage point, at the time when our grandchildren’s grandchildren look back at our generation’s response to sea level rise. By describing in detail several imagined case studies of cities’ responses, this project will explore a variety of adaptive approaches, evaluating those that were more – or less – successful over the long-term.

For instance:

  • In response to the El Nino storms of 2020, residents of the City of Malibu raised private funds to build a sea wall to defend their beachfront septic systems, exerting considerable political influence to protect their multi-million dollar homes. Yet when even larger storms came in 2032, the wall was destroyed along with many of the sea-front houses. Though a few owners chose to rebuild at great cost and risk, most moved to higher ground, and the abandoned land was purchased at minimal cost by the city and turned into bioswale and public space.
  • After years of frequent flooding sent toxic waters into the streets of West Oakland, the voters worked in 2045 and again in 2060 to pass bond measures to redevelop the Bayside, including the port and airport. Billions were spent to convert industrial sites into wetlands, redesign sewer systems and the port to accommodate fifteen feet of sea level rise, and rebuild the sub-standard housing of West Oakland into high-density neighborhoods modeled on the Netherlands. The foresight of this project created an economic base from which Oakland was able to grow and thrive for the next century.

Using participatory map-making, storytelling, walking, and text, Lost Cities of the California Coast will engage the public in art-making events that will enable participants to envision themselves in a future where sea levels are higher and difficult decisions need to be made. What sort of new infrastructure will be needed to accommodate a rising tide? What opportunities exist for progressive planning, even as some neighborhoods will eventually be lost? Urban planners, architects, engineers, and public officials are already studying the risks and opportunities presented by sea level rise; Lost Cities will broaden the public dialogue around this important issue so that people can, over the coming years, make informed choices about how we will collectively adapt to the rising waters.

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The first case study in development is San Mateo/Foster City, two interlocked cities where more than 100,000 people live in the current 100-year flood zone — a line which closely tracks the 3-foot sea level rise that is expected by the end of this century. What will San Mateo County look like then? Bringing communities into conversation about this challenging issue, as we also discuss creative responses to it, is the first step to developing a resilient city that will thrive for decades to come.

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Lowtidefullmoon walking

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Following are excerpts from my recent guided walk, Tideline as Timeline.

Timeline: January 4, 2015, 2:30 – 5:30 pm

Place: Princeton-by-the-Sea, California

The tideline is one of the richest biological regions on earth. It is also a fluctuating, fractal line that rises and falls each day and over thousands of years. Today, as the sea is receding, we will walk along the tideline to the westernmost point, a series of rocks called the Boneyard. Along the way we will stop at 7 stations to consider the intersection of tideline and timeline and forms of sense, presence, and absence in this particular landscape.

Today’s low tide, which is at 4:19, is one of the lowest of 2015, and the lowest this year that coincides with a full moon. These spring tides – so called because they spring up – nearly all take place in the winter months, due to the alignment of sun and moon and earth, a celestial pattern called a syzygy. In turn the lowest ebb generates the highest flow, and in 6 ½ hours the tideline will be about 6 ½ feet higher than it is right now.

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A chart of sea levels over the past million years looks like a graph of breathing, a predictable rise and fall during which the water withdraws 400 feet below its present level as the climate cools and ice builds at the poles, and then rises to our current level as the ice melts. This has taken place every 100,000 years, like an EKG of the planet. However, the rise happens quickly, over just 20,000 years, while the cooling period is much slower, because ice melts more easily than it forms.

On the timeline of ice ages, we are living in the pause that occurs between the last rapid melting and the next slow cooling phase. We call this the Holocene Epoch, and it has coincided with the emergence of all human societies, though whether this is coincidental is a matter of debate.

In the past two millenia, this time of climatic stasis and security we have lived in, sea level has risen 7 feet according to soil records. In the past century, the Golden Gate Bridge tidal bridge have recorded a rise 8 inches, while scientists predict a rise of up to 55” by 2100 which would the new tideline near the line we just inscribed.

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For the Ohlone people, death of one tribe member was a traumatic event for the entire community. When a person died, the family destroyed everything that belonged to them in life, breaking their bows and arrows, tearing their baskets and bear skins, throwing it all onto a funeral pyre along with the body of the deceased. The mark of success in Ohlone culture was generosity, rather than wealth, so members of the tribelet would throw their best tools and hides onto the pyre as gifts to the deceased. To ever speak the name of a dead person was to invite dangerous ghosts into the community, so as a result, family lineages were soon forgotten, and history as we understand it did not exist. The distance between Sacred Time, which was the time of the creation, and the present moment had no substance or dimension.

When the Ohlone were forcibly removed to Mission San Francisco, their culture and language were obliterated in a similar way. The last native speaker of Ramaytush, the language of the San Francisco peninsula, died in the 1950s. In the 1970s Cal Berkeley anthropologist Richard Levy trawled through mission records and early anthropological sources, to reconstruct this language. He gathered 104 words.

On an 1861 coastal map, the salt marsh behind us encompassed 10 acres of open water, and was, according to the 18th century French sea captain Jean de la Perouse, a place of ‘inexpressible fertility”. Stephen Powers, a 19th century ethnologist described the people here as “almost amphibious”, wading among deep reeds and grasses to trap birds, and digging shellfish by the ton along the shore. Hunger was absent in this place, even in the myths, which accounted for the stability of their culture over thousands of years.

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Above us is a radar station that is used to track missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 280 miles to our south, some nine missiles a year on average. These include the intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III and the Atlas V rocket, which launches military satellites.

To our southwest are the outer and inner breakwaters that form Half Moon Bay Harbor. The outer walls were built by the Army Corps of Engineers following World War II to create a harbor for the local fishing fleet; the inner walls and piers were built in the 1970s and 80s, as the fleet expanded. The bluffs and beaches beyond the harbor have eroded by several feet every year since then, as the wave energy has been displaced to the south. Some 35 feet of coastal bluffs have eroded in recent decades.

Behind the harbor is El Granada, a town commissioned by the Ocean Shore Railroad to be a resort destination for people from San Francisco and designed by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. Construction on the Ocean Shore Railroad began in 1905, though its bridges and trestles were severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake.

During the speculative decade that followed, Frank Brophy, who held title to this land, and was selling it off in lots, advertised it the local newspaper as “Princeton: Future Home to a Million People”. I undertook this project in part to find out why the streets here are named Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and West Point; the answer has thus far eluded me, but I suspect Frank M. Brophy may have had something to do with it. But the people did not come, and the railroad eventually folded in 1921. The collapse of the railroad, in combination with Prohibition made Princeton a locus of bootlegging, black markets, and bordellos. And at 10 in the morning on April Fool’s Day, 1946, a tidal wave brought the sea up to the windowsills of the houses in Princeton.

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We come from the sea. We are fish out of water. The sea was formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years; first there was only boiling rock and roiling clouds. And then waters flowed from high to low, bringing salts along, and the ocean was born. The tide has been doing just this, ebbing and flowing, every day since. This particular wave-cut platform, with all its creatures, may be submerged in a generation or two, but there will be others. In the future, these waves will be either bigger or smaller. The only constant is change.

We can see ourselves as different and separate from this ocean, these rocks, and stand at the edge of the sea with measures of fear and awe. Or we can learn from the barnacles and anemones about finding our right relationship, a fluid state of connection that sustains us as part of a larger system.

Tideline as Timeline

tideline as timeline poster

Join me for this New Year walk, marking the edge of the low tide and the rise of the full moon. We’ll think about presence and absence in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a neighborhood on the site of a former Ohlone village.

A little background. This phrase — tideline as timeline — occurred to me earlier this year while writing my Master’s thesis. I didn’t know what it meant then, except in the poetic sense of the daily pulsing of the ocean, in and out. Yet as I’ve taken a deeper dive into geology, sea levels, and climatic change, I now see the phrase as both more literal and more meaningful.

In fact, the tideline has shifted dramatically over time in response to tectonic shifts and the effect of global temperature on planetary ice levels. Over much of the last 500 million years, the planet was significantly warmer than it is now; there was no ice anywhere during much of that time, and sea levels were as much as 600 feet higher than they are now, due to the very different continental configurations of the distant past.

More recently — that is, since North America joined the South American plate 3.5 million years ago — the planet has had a consistent sea level range. When ice ages develop, as they have about every 100,000 years for at least a million years, sea levels drop about 400 feet. When the ice partially melts, as it has systematically done as part of this cycle, sea levels have risen to about where they are right now.  It’s as if the planet has been breathing in and out in a deep time, mirroring the ocean’s daily pulsing at a different scale. We are currently at the bottom of the cyclical exhale, when things are warm and wet.

Knowing this makes it even more alarming that our global temperatures and sea levels are about to spike. The planet has spent the past 20,000 years exhaling (i.e. warming) and we are about to exhale again, without any in breath to sustain us. We have never been here before.

When all the ice melts, as it likely will over the coming 500-1000 years, sea levels will be 212 feet higher than they are today. Where will our tideline be then? It’s one of the things we’ll think about on the Tideline as Timeline walk, the first in a series I’m developing with fellow artist and ocean lover, Zoe Farmer.

The Tides They Are a’ Chaaaan-gin’

Half_Moon_Bay flood map

Check out this map of my town. My house lies in the middle of it, just above that dark blue band indicates where the new tideline will be once seas have risen 55 inches, as they are expected to this century. Within the light blue area — the hundred-year flood line — is our local sewage treatment plant, at least 100 homes, and the entire community of Princeton, along the top edge of the map.

Over the years climate change talk has often seemed abstract and distant to me. Even as I do my bit to recycle and use less Stuff, somehow these choices still felt optional, as if I were doing a good deed for the future. But being Good can be tiresome, and what difference did it really make if I bought these pretty shoes or not, in the grand scheme of things?

The truth is it doesn’t make much difference, hardly any at all. The machine of global capitalism is vast and overwhelming, and my individual choices don’t matter more than a whisper in a storm.

But they matter to me. As I have begun researching sea level rise and learning about its causes — of course most are a result of human-caused global warming — this has all become much more personal. This will affect my home, my children, me.

And so it is time to get real about my personal carbon footprint and what impact my choices actually have.

My family is going on a Low Carbon Diet, starting now. Stay tuned for details!