Water from the king tide is seen along the sidewalk near Pier 14 as Steven Reel (right) takes a photograph, in San Francisco. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle
As she stood at the edge of the Embarcadero on Tuesday, the bay waters surging high but rarely spilling toward her feet, Lori Lambertson stated the obvious.
“Tides are real tricky,” said Lambertson, a staff teacher at the Exploratorium science museum...
She was explaining the phenomenon known as king tides, when the oceans’ water levels reach higher than at any other time of the year and offer a taste of how sea level rise might alter our shoreline. There was only one problem, so to speak: The tides weren’t putting on much of a show.
Waves rocked back and forth, pushing up against the concrete edge of Pier 3. Every few minutes they’d lap over and onto the walkway. For the most part, though, the scene was less scary than sedate.
This wasn’t the case last December at Pier 3: The king arrived with giddy fanfare, crashing and cascading across the constructed shoreline for nearly an hour. Nothing higher than your ankle, perhaps, but a guilty environmental pleasure all the same.
The guilty aspect involves climate change, and forecasts that today’s extra-high tide could be the norm in coming decades.
According to a 2012 report by the National Research Council, done at the request of the states along the West Coast, the average tide levels in the bay could rise as much as 2 feet by 2050. That’s a bit more than the difference between this week’s king tides and the average typical high tide for the year. The low points along the Embarcadero on either side of the Ferry Building would be left with no margin for error — especially since heavy storms could push water levels another 2 or 3 feet.
Cue the ominous music.
But the lack of splashy drama so far this week — extra-high tides continue through Thursday — shows that we can’t choreograph nature. Just because the long-term forces are real, they don’t respond to our beck and call.
John King's "Rising Reality" series examines how sea level rise might affect San Francisco Bay and the surrounding communities.
The 2012 report acknowledges this. The two major triggers for rising sea levels would be warming temperatures, which would cause the oceans’ water levels to expand, and the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctica. But the specific factors for specific regions add twists all their own. That’s why the projections for Northern California are as high as 66 inches by 2100, and as low as 17 inches.
By comparison, measurements at the tidal station at Crissy Field show an increase of roughly 8 inches in the past century.
The difference between this week’s understatement and last year’s production is due to El Niño, said William Sweet of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The warmer temperatures raised the water level about 6 inches last year — enough to cross the Embarcadero’s line.
That’s not much margin for error.
Other factors can make the waters rise or fall above or below projections. Lambertson cited barometric pressure and winds, and said those are only two variables of 200.
“It’s not just rain alone,” or any other single factor, Lambertson said. “How the water moves around is complicated.”
But these days, the very notion of complexity is taboo.
In 2015, climate change-denying Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., held up a snowball to prove that scientific studies showing climate change are either a conspiracy or a crock. That was one year after a reality show host tweeted in 2014 about “global warming HOAXTERS” because baby, it’s cold outside.
To a much lesser degree, some environmental advocates err on the side of sensationalism: Last year’s El Niño was to unleash storms that would preview an apocalyptic future, just as king tides are touted as a preview of coming attractions. If something that is meant to be scary instead seems kind of cool, people inclined to be skeptical will take notice — and say that those of us concerned about climate change are crying wolf.
But here’s the thing.
Even if the extra-high tides roiling the bay on Monday and Tuesday didn’t spill into the Financial District, they were for real. And unless hundreds of credible scientists around the world are completely wrong, our environment is being subjected to pressures that haven’t been experienced in human history.
Change of some sort is coming, whatever the exact level or pace.
“We like to say we’re looking at the tides of the future,” Lambertson said. “Sea levels are rising, and that’s not going to stop. How are we going to plan for that?”
That’s the important question — even if galoshes aren’t needed this week on Pier 3.
December 14, 2016 Updated: December 14, 2016 8:39am
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