Volunteers across California gain insight into sea level rise by documenting the year's highest tides
When a “king tide” hit the local coastline Thursday — an unusually high tide caused by solar and lunar gravitational pull — the result was submerged streets in King Salmon, flooded cow pastures and inundated shorelines on Indian Island.
National Weather Service spokesman Troy Nicolini said the lowest areas in King Salmon could be hit again today, with especially strong southerly winds pushing water onto the shore.
“The wind pushes water onto the coast, which exacerbates the astronomical tides,” he said.
About 15 local volunteers captured images of the high water event, said Humboldt Baykeeper Policy Director Jennifer Kalt, joining forces with federal, state and nonprofit agency volunteers who documented coastal areas across California flooded by high tides. The grassroots effort is called the King Tides Initiative Program, which began in the Bay Area in 2009 to help educate the public about the coastal shoreline and sea level rise.
“We have a lot of local people really excited about what’s going on right now,” Kalt said. “The first year we participated we kind of just sent out the call, but this year we have targeted our efforts, with a specific list of places volunteers are assigned to photograph.” By capturing images of the high water events, volunteers and environmental agencies across the state hope to provide insight into how rising sea levels will impact coastal areas in the future.
Heidi Nutters was a fellow at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission when the program was first launched.
“Someone had mentioned that people in Washington and British Columbia were working on a similar documentation project,” said Nutters, who now works at the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “So we thought we would try it out. It started as a Bay Area specific project, but within a matter of months it had turned into a statewide effort.” Nutters, who is now a lead organizer of the program, said she was impressed by the momentum the program gained.
“It has really become an informal collaboration of federal and state agencies and nonprofits,” she said. “Everyone just seems to be really excited about coming together. I think it’s just a mutual interest in finding ways to engage the public in sea level rise.” Getting involved is easy, she said. Volunteers are asked to take photos of their local coastline when tides are at their highest and then email them to Humboldt Baykeeper or upload them to the program’s Flickr account. For those looking to help in Humboldt County, the lowest-lying areas in King Salmon could be hit again today, and king tides are expected Dec. 12 to Dec. 14 and Jan. 9 to Jan. 11.
Nutters said photographing the king tides allows people to “visualize what sea level rise might look like in the future.” Kalt said she hopes the photographs taken this winter will support efforts to document Humboldt Bay’s vulnerability to sea level rise. “We plan to share our photos with the other agencies in the program,” she said. “But our primary reason for doing this is to support the sea level rise planning in our county that is really just now in the earliest stages.” Kalt said the idea is to collect information while raising awareness about the impacts of extremely high tides.
“We want people to understand this isn’t just some vague problem in the future,” she said. “It’s actually already happening.” Documenting sea level rise is especially important in Humboldt County, Kalt said, where it is estimated that sea levels have risen nearly 18 inches in the past 100 years. On top of that, Kalt said geologists believe Humboldt Bay is actually subsiding because of tectonic activity.
“What that means is that we have basically a two-fold problem,” she said. “We are sinking at the same rate that sea levels are rising. There will be a lot of difficult decisions that will have to be made in the future because of this. The longer we wait, the harder making those decisions will be.”