San Francisco's Battle With Mother Nature

As climate change accelerates coastal erosion across the continent, officials everywhere look to San Francisco to see how it will stem the tide, Felicity Barringer reports.
March 28, 2012, 5am PDT | Ryan Lue
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On San Francisco's 3.5-mile-long Ocean Beach, the very same waves that beckon tourists and surfers to the West Coast are slowly chipping the shore away. While erosion "is a perennial issue for beachfront communities," Ocean Beach is especially sensitive: unabated, the encroaching waves threaten to destroy critical infrastructure, including the Great Highway, a wastewater treatment plant, and a 14-foot-wide stormdrain pipe.

It may take some time, but the consequences are expected to be severe, and worsened by rising sea levels due to climate change. "Researchers warned in two new studies that severe coastal flooding could occur regularly in the United States by the middle of the century and that California would be among the states most affected," Barringer notes.

For officials in San Francisco, the options are limited: either reinforce the beach with walls and riprap, build it back up with more sand, or retreat altogether. Stakeholders are divided over these solutions, with each costing on the order of tens of millions of dollars. But a study by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association "projects that sea-level rise there could impose costs of more than $650 million by 2100 if nothing is done."

Barringer summarizes a report by economists at San Francisco State University, writing that "Communities can either plan for the long term or improvise, storm by storm, until ad hoc solutions are inadequate."

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Published on Saturday, March 24, 2012 in New York Times
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