Features & Columns

'Coasts in Crisis' Exposes Fragile State of the Earth's Shorelines

Disappearing coasts and climate change could bring a Harvey-type disaster to the
Bay Area. Santa Cruz scientist Gary Griggs' new book details how
Disappearing coasts and climate change could bring a Harvey-type disaster to the Bay Area. Photo by Stephen Vaughan

Nearly half of the humans on this sweet planet—three billion and counting—live in Earth's coastal zones. But between 2000 and 2010, new building permits were issued at a rate of 1,355 per day in shoreline counties across the U.S. Increasing coastal development is setting the stage for a precarious future. Indeed, we've already begun to see its impact.

That's why a new book by UC Santa Cruz earth sciences professor Gary Griggs, Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge, couldn't come at a more crucial time. As the Trump Administration actively dismantles every hard-won environmental protection it can get its hands on, and the call-to-action climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power plays in theaters across the country, Griggs' book—which hit stores last week—sharpens its focus on the most vulnerable regions of all.

"With about 150 million living within just three feet of high tide, and hundreds of millions more within a few more feet, future sea-level rise may be the greatest challenge human civilization has ever faced," Griggs writes.

Drawing on an impressive body of scientific research, Coasts in Crisis dips into geological and human history to trace our trajectory to today's coastal megacities and beyond. His engrossing, multi-dimensional approach results in a global perspective of the dangers and dilemmas facing our coasts. Natural processes and hazards get full coverage, but the human components—including pollution and plastic debris, ocean acidification, aquatic invasive species, renewable energy, desalination and so much more—make up the brunt of his meticulous 352-page analysis.

Metro grilled Griggs on the current state of the coasts and a future that depends on us.

Did you have an 'aha' moment in which you realized that our coasts were in a much more dire situation than you had ever thought?

GARY GRIGGS: I arrived in Santa Cruz 50 years ago as a young assistant professor at the newly opened UC Santa Cruz campus and immediately started exploring the coast—mostly the north coast—looking for places to take class field trips. In the fall of 1968, I headed out to Pleasure Point and quickly discovered that the water smelled like sewage. Turns out that place was locally known as "Sewer Peak" and it was the East Cliff outfall that discharged just 200 feet offshore in about five feet of water. That experience and the first environmental studies class I taught a year later, which produced a report on the area's environmental problems, made me aware of the issues our coast faced even a half a century ago.

If there is one thing that climate-change deniers can't deny, it's the scientific tracking of Earth's melting ice caps. Along with the massive chunks of ice falling into the sea—including last month's Antarctica iceberg, Larsen C, which you reported was the size of Santa Cruz, San Mateo, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties combined. Can you share any figures for the current rate of ice melt?

There are three main areas where the planet's ice is stored, and it is primarily the melting of that ice that is raising sea level, along with a warming ocean, leading to thermal expansion of water. The mountain glaciers, or those in Alaska, the Andes, Alps, Patagonia and Himalayas, where we most often see the photographs of retreat and melting, actually are quite small in volume. If they were all to melt, which they are gradually doing, they would produce a total global sea-level rise of a little less than two feet. That's not trivial if you live within two feet of high tide.

The big volumes are in Greenland, which has enough ice to raise sea level around the planet about 24 feet—clearly a big problem for nearly 750 million people, or 10 percent of the planet's people that live within 24 feet of sea level. The elephant in the room, however, is Antarctica, which holds 61 percent of all freshwater on the planet (6,400,000 cubic miles of ice, which would cover the entire United States with 10,000 feet of ice), and enough to raise sea level about 190 feet were it all to melt.

No climate scientist believes that will happen this century or next, but we are slowly moving in that direction, and we don't need all of the ice to melt—a few feet of sea level rise will create major problems in shoreline cities around the world. Right now our best projections are for about three feet of rise by 2100.

You note that until about a century ago, global sea levels were fairly stable, rising only about .04 inches per year, or four inches per century. What is the rate at now?

The present rate of global sea-level rise as measured precisely from satellites over the past 24 years is a little more than 13 inches per 100 years, or over three times as fast as the past century. All indications are, however, that this rate is going to continue to increase.

Perhaps part of the problem, as far as public awareness is concerned, is that 13 inches per 100 years and accelerating doesn't sound so scary. Can you explain what this type of sea-level rise looks like for low-lying places?

Our best projections at present of global sea-level rise for the year 2100 are about three feet above the 2000 level. Today around the world, there are about 150 million people living within three feet of high tide in places like Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, as well as New Orleans and parts of the Atlantic coast of the U.S.

The impact of three feet of additional sea level on a low-lying area like downtown Capitola, which has been inundated a number of times by high tides and storm waves, is not trivial. Adding an additional foot or two of sea level makes a huge difference for any low-lying coastal community or city and the frequency of flooding.

Santa Cruz scientist Gary Griggs has spent the last five decades studying the coasts, and his new book makes some terrifying predictions. Photo by Deepika Shrestha Ross

Will we see the San Francisco Bay grow, endangering landfill along its shores and low-lying areas like Alviso? Will low lying parts of the valley experience the kind of flooding that San Jose saw during the winter rains earlier this year?

There is both flooding from rainfall and runoff, which occurs in areas removed from the bay (like Houston, where flooding is from extreme rainfall and not necessarily from the Gulf of Mexico). Sea-Level Rise will affect those low areas around the bay margins, and this includes places like SFO and Oakland International, which begin to see seawater on their runways with 16 inches of rise above present high tides. This is not good news.

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (SFCDC) projects that the bay's expansion will become a big problem around 2050. Is that consistent with your research?

SFBCDC has done a lot of cutting-edge work on sea-level rise around the bay, and was well out in front of the rest of the nation in doing so. Now there are these sea-level rise viewers, which you can use to look at virtually any coastal community and what 25cm, 50cm or 100cm or more may mean. I think high water levels are already a problem if you look at the King Tides site. I've not looked specifically at 2050 but in all likelihood, it could be much worse if we have 12 or more additional inches of sea level rise.

Google, Facebook and Cisco all have low-lying campuses that could be affected by the melt-off by the end of the century. Have you looked at these areas in studying global warming?

I haven't been looking specifically at these campuses. However, they are like many other very expensive development or infrastructure around the bay (SFO, Highway 101, etc.) in being at very low elevations. The three questions that are being asked are: 1. How much higher will sea level be by some future date (2030, 2050, etc.)? 2. What will be affected by that much rise? 3. What do we do about each of those structures? We can build seawalls, levees or some sort of floodwalls for a while, but it's a bay with a 500-mile shoreline and we cannot afford to either build levees around all of it, and we can't hold back the Pacific Ocean forever. There will come a time when managed retreat or some sort of accommodation will be necessary.

We've already seen destructive storms wreak unprecedented havoc on coastal cities in recent years, like 2013's Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 thousand people in the Philippines and displaced tens of thousands more. Why are these storms occurring, and do you think we are just seeing the beginning of a dangerous trend?

The number of natural disasters from floods, storms, drought and heat waves during the first decade of the 21st century has been nearly five times as high as during the 1970s—and these are all weather-related events, which are influenced by climate change.

Directly contradicting President Trump, a new draft report produced by 13 federal agencies concludes that the United States is already feeling the negative impacts of climate change. A warming Earth means longer and more frequent droughts and heat waves, and warmer water that leads to both greater evaporation and subsequently increased rainfall and flooding, and likely more energy for hurricanes, typhoons and other tropical storms. While it is difficult to blame every additional climate-related disaster on global climate change, the patterns and trends are becoming increasingly clear that conditions are changing and there are major impacts on the planet's human population as a result.

In recent interviews, Al Gore mentioned visiting Miami and seeing fish swimming up out of storm drains during high tide—a frequent occurrence there now. You also address Miami in your book, saying it continues to build higher and higher, "as if trying to outpace the increasing rate of sea-level rise." Not to pick on Miami, but it seems to be making an example of itself. In 2016, you write that Miami to West Palm Beach built 417 new condominium towers (with over 50,000 individual units)—and not one of them took sea-level rise into account.

The Miami-West Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale area is already experiencing regular "tidal flooding," although the governor for some odd reason has apparently forbidden state employees from using the words "sea-level rise." It is one of the United States' most vulnerable areas to additional sea-level rise, which is inevitable. The challenges the Miami area faces are a result of being built essentially at sea level and being on limestone, which is like Swiss cheese so it dissolves, leaving caves and sinkholes that provide easy access to seawater, no matter how high walls are built. While the city is spending millions of dollars trying to pump water out of the city, they can't hold back the entire Atlantic Ocean. Denial is not the name of a river in Egypt.

Under the Trump Administration, 11 national marine sanctuaries and monuments—totaling an area of 425 million acres of beaches, coral reefs and marine life habitat—could lose protections under a new plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. What sort of risks and impacts would this pose?

Fortunately oil and gas require a certain set of conditions to form; it just doesn't occur everywhere or we might find oil wells in everyone's backyards. In addition, the state owns the first three miles offshore so the Trump administration has no control of these areas. There were some federal oil lease sales off of Central California back in the 1960s, but prospects at the time ended up being poor so leases were abandoned. There are many offshore areas that the oil companies aren't really interested in simply because the probabilities of finding large amounts of oil are very low and the investments to drill and develop oil fields are very high. A single large offshore platform may cost $250 million to $1 billion. With crude oil prices now just under $50/barrel (a barrel is 42 gallons), there are also many offshore areas where it simply isn't economical to drill for oil, despite what Donald Trump may dream is out there.

Two areas of highest risk today are the Arctic, where the efforts so far have been met with serious environmental conditions, and very deep water, such as offshore Gulf of Mexico where drilling is taking place in 5,000 to 10,000 feet of water. Explosions, fires, and blowouts, such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, when 11 crew members died and about 4.9 million barrels of oil ended up in the Gulf, are some of the hazards and potential impacts.

Many of the valley's office parks and tech campuses will flood in coming decades, according to information compiled from FEMA. Photo provided by temblor.net

Do you think that saving our coasts also requires a total shift in global consciousness? And if so, do you think we may be nearing that tipping point?

I believe we are at a critical point, and increasing global temperatures from greenhouse gas emissions is the major driving force. The signs surround us: longer droughts and failed crops, retreating glaciers and melting snowpacks, sea-level rise and coastal retreat, more frequent and severe climate-related natural disasters. If anyone wonders if there is a coming water crisis, ask a farmer. Coasts are at a crisis point because of both the increase in natural disasters and hazards that affect the coastal zone, but also the hundreds of millions of people that continue to move to coastal cities with all of their ocean impacts. While the U.S. under this president has turned back the clock on virtually every effort that had been made to try to bring climate change under control, California, in large part due to Gov. (Jerry) Brown, is way out in front and leading a nationally and internationally recognized effort to do the right thing. We have shown that we can be the largest national producer of solar energy, number three in wind power and leading in reducing carbon emissions, and still be the planet's sixth largest economy. We can make a difference that is having a significant influence on other states and nations, thanks to an intelligent, thoughtful and focused governor who is doing the right things.

There is a Terence McKenna concept for saving the world, which he attributes, actually, to the magic mushroom. That solution is that no woman should have more than one natural child. He admits that this solution flies directly in the face of capitalism, which thrives on an exponential increase in consumers. At the same time, I don't hear many of my child-bearing-age peers talking about population projections. Do you think that our current trajectory requires a radical reversal or decrease in population?

Paul Ehrlich and his wife [Anne, who was uncredited] wrote The Population Bomb 50 years ago (1968) and described in detail how quickly global populations were increasing and the coming problems of mass starvation due to inadequate food supplies. I recall a nationwide organization with an active Santa Cruz group, called ZPG, for Zero Population Growth. A number of things happened in subsequent years with miracle crops increasing yields, etc., as well as push back from various religious groups ... and a whole series of other environmental issues took the front page. Yet today, the world population stands at 7.5 billion, having doubled since I arrived at UCSC in 1968. China and India constitute 36 percent of the total. There is simply no way the planet can support the present population at anything close to the standard of living we enjoy in the U.S. It would take four Earths to provide that standard of living. Instead, the planet gains 225,000 people every day, equivalent to 900 jumbo jets each delivering 250 people; 850 million people across the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition and 21,000 of these, mostly children, die every day. The Earth also has a serious problem with access to safe drinking water and sanitation, with more people having cell phones than toilets. A child dies every 90 seconds because of lack of access to clean water and sanitation. The Earth simply doesn't have the resources to support the present population with adequate food, water and sanitation.

Each of your chapters end with a 'Where do we go from here?' section, intended to encourage people to act individually and collectively to restore, preserve and protect our vital coastal environments. What are the most important individual and collective actions we can take?

Following many talks I have given on coastal issues to off-campus groups, I often am asked "What can we do?" My first response has always until now been vote. Well, that didn't work nationally, but it still makes a big difference closer to home. Our local and state representatives have huge impacts on coastal issues. There are also many opportunities to get involved with organizations or facilities who work on public education and coastal or ocean conservation: the Seymour Marine Discovery Center and Sanctuary Exploration Center, Save Our Shores, Surfriders, and many others who are working to improve our coastal environment through public education and advocacy.

Gary Griggs presents 'Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge' at 4pm on Sunday, Sept. 30 at Barnes & Noble Stevens Creek. Free.