2011-05-11 00:50:08Report: Climate Change Hits Home in the SF Bay Area
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Report: Climate Change Hits Home in the SF Bay Area

Even if the world stopped emitting all greenhouse gases today, scientists say, the climate would continue to change, perhaps for centuries, before it stabilized. Since the chances of that are zero, and considering that global carbon emissions are continuing on their upward trend, finding ways to adapt to what many see as the inevitable is getting more and more attention.

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), a local think tank focused on sustainable growth, has just released a 40-page report that outlines the Bay Area's biggest climate risks and lays out a road map for how communities can start preparing.

A very high tide in San Francisco. Credit: stevendamron/flickr.

The gist?  We've got a lot of work to do.

“We need to beginning planning on many fronts because climate change is going to affect the way we do business, it’s going to affect everything from people’s health to property values on the shoreline," said SPUR's Laura Tam.

The report finds that the climate change impacts most threatening to the Bay Area are more intense heat waves, water uncertainty (droughts, wildfires, extreme storms and flooding), and sea level rise. It lays out step-by-step instructions for addressing these risks, in terms of public safety and health, water supply, transportation infrastructure, biodiversity, and the region's energy supply.

Heat waves are a big focus of the report, which, if you live in San Francisco like me, may seem irrelevant. Yet, Tam says it's exactly places like San Francisco that are most vulnerable to increased heat waves because we're not used to them. (How many people here do you know with air conditioning?)

The report says that by 2100, the Bay Area may experience between 74 and 90 days above 81°F per year. Throughout the 20th century, the Bay Area averaged about 12. An increase like that means greater risk for heat-related illnesses and some infectious diseases, as well as poorer air quality. To address this, SPUR recommends communities identify vulnerable populations, reduce the "urban heat island effect" by promoting white roofs and urban forestry, building communications and public warning systems, and developing robust "heat response plans" and air quality monitoring programs.

Will Travis, the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and a SPUR board member, said that cash-strapped cities and towns have been "reticent" to deal with climate change adaptation because it can seem like a problem of the future.  But, communities are going to have to act soon to avoid a crisis that's both environmental and economic, he said.

“Our region is not going to be able to remain competitive and attract the capital we need to make our innovative economy grow if we don’t address this problem right now," said Travis.

According to BCDC, the Bay Area may see 55 inches of sea level rise by 2100. The SPUR report says that means more than 186 miles of major roads (including I-80, I-880, U.S. 101, Highway 37, I-680, and Highway 12), more than 105 miles of regional rail track, and 93 percent of Oakland Airport and San Francisco International Airport property will be vulnerable to flooding.


The Embarcadero during a flood tide shows what future sea level rise could look like. Photo courtesy flickr user heidi.nutters

“That transportation infrastructure is the lifeblood of what makes our economy work," said Travis. "We need that mobility, so we’re going to have to be retrofitting those facilities to make sure that they don’t go underwater."

The report recommends agencies conduct a comprehensive transportation vulnerability assessment, design resilient new transportation projects, and develop emergency transportation alternatives for cases of extreme weather events.

The report is dense and detailed, and it's a sobering look at exactly how much needs to be done to prepare for what many state and regional agencies agree is likely on its way. Odds are, none of this will be cheap. And yet, according to SPUR's Laura Tam, beginning to deal with climate change impacts now could save money as well as lives.

"If we don't start planning ahead and preparing we will end up dealing with crises that emerge as emergencies, and we don't want to be in the position of having to respond to climate emergencies," she said.  "We want to know what to expect, and be prepared, so that the least amount of property is damaged and the least amount of people suffer."

Direct link to the SPUR report is here (~5 Mb download).

2011-05-11 01:43:57
Dana Nuccitelli

Thanks Daniel.  I might do a post on this since it's in my neck of the woods (though Rob H is even closer).

2011-05-11 02:08:11Feel free
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Up for grabs, if anyone wants it (but I did think of you, Dana, when I saw this).

2011-05-11 06:04:16


Meanwhile, here in the Medway Towns, UK, I am collecting photos of archaic flood defences long past their expiry dates.  Reports on flood risks emanating from my local council focus on development areas ( = big money!) and exclude many historic and residential areas.  The "experts" involved seem to not have a clue.  They are using an aerial survey method which is +/- 250mm inaccurate and seem not to be aware that storm surges can roll up unprotected slopes and bypass high sea walls.  Even the new sea walls will be overtopped by projected 1:200 year floods.

As far as I am aware, no modelling studies have been done on the 3-D dynamics of the Medway as a system.

The local emergency response plan is a total shambles, being based on a worst case scenario of about 1000 people being made homeless by floods.  My own projection is more like 1000 homeless, a further 10000 cut off, disruption to local road and rail traffic, complete inundation of the Medway tunnel and probable disruption to gas, water and electricity supplies.

The terms 'booze-up' and 'brewery' spring readily to mind. :-)

A very long article, or even a series in my science20.com blog is in the offing.


/endrant  ;-)