King Tides: visualizing sea level rise

December 12, 2012

If you live along the west coast, you may have noticed flooded streets and sidewalks, submerged piers, and disappearing beaches this morning. Today marks the year’s highest tides. Known as “King Tides,” these seasonal high tides can cause the ocean to swell a foot above normal high water levels, providing a glimpse of a future when sea level rise will threaten low-lying homes and infrastructure up and down the coast.

A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association last week predicted that the ocean could rise up to six and a half feet by the year 2100. That would impact the homes of more than six million Americans. And it’s not just homes. Roads, train stations, airports, and businesses are also in harm’s way. As a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences points out, San Francisco International Airport is just over a foot above sea level.

This all sounds ominous, but scientific papers (and even snazzy visuals like this New York Times feature or this interactive map from Climate Central’s Surging Seas website) are no substitute for the shock of commuting on a flooded bike path, or watching waves lap at your lawn.

That’s why our friends at California Coastkeepers Alliance have partnered with state agencies on a photojournalism/citizen science project that gets coastal residents out to the shore to document King Tides. The California King Tides Initiative has collected more than 500 photos from the community since 2010.  Similar efforts are underway in Oregon and Washington.

Making a connection between seasonal high tides caused by the moon’s gravitational pull and rising seas caused by climate change requires precision and clarity. Resource Media was proud to help CCKA develop sea level rise messaging in 2011, and delighted to see news stories, like this one from the San Jose Mercury News, that use King Tides to illustrate the real threat posed by sea level rise