Where the Ground Sinks Under the Weight of Development

New research documents how the weight of buildings causes the ground to sink underneath developments in the San Francisco Bay Area.

February 22, 2021, 8:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Mission Bay and Potrero Hill

Mark Schwettmann / Shutterstock

Kurtis Alexander reports: "The entire Bay Area is plunging downward under the weight of its own sprawl. And that’s a concern as sea levels rise and cities try to figure out how they’ll stay above water in the coming decades."

New research by Tom Parsons, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has shed light on the subsidence caused by development in the San Francisco Bay Area. Parsons published findings in a recent issue of the journal AGU Advances.

The most famous example of subsidence in San Francisco is Millennium Tower. The tony but beleaguered residential tower has sunk 16 inches in the decade since its construction and is tilting to the side. Although this one example is infamous, the issue hasn't been studied extensively in the aggregate, according to Alexander.

The study is likely to have implications in other cities, according to Alexander, especially when considering the collision course of sinking coastal cities with rising coastlines. "Other areas seeing significant development are also likely to have sinking buildings while similarly having to contend with sea level rise, the paper says." The Bay Area is further complicated by seismic activity, which can raise ground levels, pushing up against the weight of buildings and mitigating some of the subsidence effect.

Friday, February 19, 2021 in The San Francisco Chronicle

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