King Tide: A harbinger of conditions in the future

February 17, 2011 7:49:35 PM PST
There was a note of prophecy in a traffic sign along San Francisco's Embarcadero Thursday morning. It warned of 'flooding ahead,' and while those words addressed immediate concerns from a frothing, teeming bay, futurists could interpret more.

"What we are seeing is a preview of conditions after sea levels rise," Will Travis from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission said.

It was not the first time Travis has issued such a warning. But with water splashing from the bay, across the sidewalk and into busy traffic conditions, it provided a more-than-ample demonstration.

Technically speaking, climatologists describe it as a 'King Tide.' It is a product of the sun and moon aligning, with the moon at its closest point to Earth. Add winds, rain, strong surf and a sea level rise of seven inches in the last 100 years, and this is what we get. Moreover, with oceans predicted to rise 16 inches in the next 50 years, it may have been nothing when compared with what we can expect.

"We're talking parts of San Francisco looking more like Venice," Travis said.

He warns that the San Francisco Bay area will need to build levees and think differently about the design and construction of future buildings.

"One of the things they are doing around the world is designing buildings that can tolerate occasional flooding. I call them the West Coast equivalent of snow days. In the future, there will be some days when workers just have to stay home," he said.

Planning, however, is a product of predicting and the 'King Tide' offered that opportunity as well. When such high tides hit, an army of photographers heads out around the bay, documenting the water's spread, and then posts those pictures at

On Thursday morning, the environmental group Baykeeper launched a boat hoping to shoot such photographs from the water, but conditions proved prohibitive for steady shots. Despite there being no pictures, Baykeeper's John Flanders said the boat looked at San Francisco's shoreline from The Embarcadero to Crissy Field, plus Treasure Island and also Alameda.

"There were a lot of instances where land use was close to the water line, and in some instances we saw the water come up over the land," he said.

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