14 December 2009

Gondolas in San Francisco?

Posted by Michael McFadden

Maybe it’s because of my childhood trip to Venice, but I’ve always liked the idea of a canal city. I’ve often thought about kayaking to class, inter-tubing to my mail box or taking a quick dip inside the Palace of Fine Arts. A few scientists in the early afternoon natural hazards session don’t seem to agree. Rising sea levels, they said, won’t be at all like my Mediterranean vacation.

Sea levels used to be quite fickle, according to Hans-Peter Plag of the University of Nevada. But 8,000 years ago, they stabilized, allowing for long-lasting human settlements. We’ve gotten so accustomed to our well-behaved oceans that even a small increase in sea levels may have large economic tolls, he said.

In Northwest Alaska, global climate change has taken its toll, said Yuri Gorokhovich of the City University of New York. Local communities haven’t been able to fish or hunt like they used to–the ice near the coast has become thin and “rotten.” Rising waters may throw another wrench in the livelihood of Inupaq Eskimo communities, he said.

Closer to home, Noah Knowles with the USGS in Menlo Park, CA. showed that rising sea levels may drown out Treasure Island and much of the South Bay. A proposal for a San Francisco 49ers stadium in the San Francisco neighborhood Hunter’s Park may be more costly than expected, unless Alex Smith is willing to wear waders.

But communicating just how bad rising sea levels will be, the scientists said, to policy-makers is a slippery issue. Those no-good-niks always want to know exactly how much waters will surge by such-and-such time before they act.

But sea levels respond to any number of factors, including sediment transportation, polar melting and the gravitational pull of land masses. All of these factors are hard to predict on their own and cobbling them together in a Congress-approved manner is difficult. Recent data on the rapid trickle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, for instance, changed sea level estimates considerably from 2002 models, Plag said.

I’m fine with the uncertainty. As we speak, I’m pumping up my inter-tube and getting ready for a good tan.

–Daniel Strain, UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Graduate Student