Damage to Infrastructure from Sea Rise Will Disrupt Lives, Economy

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Photo: Airliners on the runway of San Francisco International Airport. Photo courtesy of SFO.

Note: This news content, including video, may not be reprinted.

Editor’s Note: Sea levels are expected to rise 16 inches by mid-century and 55 inches by 2100. Rising seas alone may not cause problems, but in combination with high tides and storm surges, could cause devastating floods in the Bay Area. KTSF-TV reporter Jessie Liang shows how rising seas will disrupt lives and vital infrastructure like roads, water treatment plants and power plants located near the water.

This is a translated transcript of the television segment which originally aired on KTSF-TV Ch 26 on June 11.

Jessie Liang: According to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average global air temperature has increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years.

If carbon emissions continue to rise, temperatures could increase by 10 degrees by the end of the century.

Global warming is accelerating the melting of massive ice shelves in Antarctica and Greenland that is causing sea levels to rise globally. The Bay Area, surrounded by coastline and shoreline, is the one of the most vulnerable regions in California when sea level rises.

Jeremy Lowe is a scientist who studies wetlands and estuaries at Environmental Science Associates (ESA):
“As things are warming up, so the glaciers, the land ice in Greenland and Antarctica is starting to melt as well. [If] That melt [occurs] slowly, and the water goes into the ocean, then we would only see a small sea level rise, but if there is a large amount of ice that goes in at one time -- just like in a cocktail, when we put the ice cube into a glass, the level suddenly increases -- that's what we might be seeing in the ocean in the future.”

Liang: Scientists estimate that sea level will rise 14 inches by mid-century and 55 inches by 2100.

When temperatures go up, storms, such as El Nino, can occur more often.

Benjamin Grant is public realm and urban design program manager:
“The impacts of coastal storms become much more severe, because the wave is starting from a higher point, and [there will] also likely to be an increase in the frequency and severity storms, so some of coastal hazards that already exist would be made worse.”

Lowe says, “When there's a storm, we have winds… which blows the waves across the bay. And the combination of those, together with high tides can give us…much higher water levels -- maybe two or three feet higher than we normally [have] experienced.”

Liang: According to Climate Central, San Mateo County is the most vulnerable county in the Bay Area when sea level rises.

Larry Goldzband is executive director of San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC):

“Because [if you] take a look [at the] San Mateo County shoreline, it's the airport, it's low level [Highway] 101 all the way to … Foster City…. So it's a big area.”

Doug Yakel is a spokesperson for the San Francisco International Airport (SFO):
“SFO has about eight miles of shoreline on its property, and this is really the perimeter that goes around the edge of the runway. There's an area where the U.S. coast guard station [is located].”

Liang: Climate Central’s research shows that about a quarter of “socially-vulnerable populations” in San Mateo County live less than three feet above the high tide line. It’s followed by 16 percent in Marin County. If we do nothing, when sea level rises, the electricity system, the water system, tunnels, bridges and other infrastructures such as coastal and low-lying areas of Highway 1, 101, 37 and 80, the Dumbarton bridge and San Mateo-Hayward bridges, could be damaged. If that infrastructure were damaged, it would have a big impact on the local economy.

Again, Larry Goldzband with BCDC:
“The worst case scenario [is] by 2100, over 250,000 people and over $60 billion dollars of …economic assets [are] under water.”

SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel:
“SFO airport generates about $31 billion in revenue to the Bay Area, and creates about 150,000 jobs.”

Liang: The researchers said if the Port of Oakland stops its operation because of rising sea levels, the state economy would be seriously hurt. Even though sea level rises very slowly, we have to start planning now, because protecting our environment and economy will take a lot of time and money.

Again, Jeremy Lowe with ESA:
“We should think about all other issues we have in the bay, water quality, about the value that we put onto the wetlands. [If we] combine these together, we can save a lot of money by solving several problems simultaneously.”

Jessie Liang is a reporter for KTSF TV-Ch 26.

This story is part of a New America Media-led collaborative reporting project ("Surging Seas Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon?") on the local impacts of sea level rise involving six Bay Area ethnic and community media reporters. The project was conducted in partnership with Climate Central, Stamen Design and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Mize Family Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.