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Column: The End of Albany as We Know It

One local resident reflects on how sea level rise is projected to affect the city. Have an idea for a guest column? Email albany@patch.com.

Sometime in the next several decades, Albany will start disappearing under the Bay. In the next few centuries, the town we know will cease to exist.

By opening the attached pdf and using your keyboard’s arrow keys, you can trace how up to 100 feet of rising sea levels will affect Albany. 

With 20 feet of sea level rise, half of university village will be inundated, and San Pablo Avenue at the northern edge of town will be underwater. With 50 feet of sea level rise, Albany Hill will become an island.

With 80 feet of sea level rise, the new will be filled by the Bay. With 200 feet of sea level rise, only a tiny portion of Albany along its eastern border will still be above sea level. 

How much melting ice is required to raise sea levels these amounts? A good reference is the U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet here.

Greenland alone contains enough ice to raise sea level by 21.5 feet (6.55 meters). The melting of Greenland plus the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea level by 48 feet (14.61 meters). That’s enough to turn into an island.

Of course, sea level changes of these magnitudes will take a few centuries. If humankind suddenly changes course and begins to reduce levels of green house gases, perhaps Albany Hill will never become an island. But for now, the international coordination and political will necessary to restrain climate change are lacking. I’m betting on Albany Hill eventually becoming Albany island.

A changing climate changes everything, except people’s minds. Concepts like “waterfront” and “shoreline” no longer have any meaning. Instead we will have a series of constantly shifting waterfronts and shorelines. 

The is a good example. Most of the land there—the access road, the lower parking lot, the track, almost all of —lies less than four feet above the high tide line. Climate scientists warn us that sea levels could rise as much as two meters (6.5 feet) this century, or more. The waterfront is slowly reverting to a tidal marsh, its natural state.

Even with current sea levels, the intense storms brought about by climate change are causing destructive flooding across the planet. When coupled with high tides, as was the case recently in Thailand, flooding can cause fantastic amounts of damage.

It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which climate change creates a huge winter storm that dumps precipitation across Northern California. Flood waters pour down the Sacramento River as high tides and prevailing NW winds effectively dam the Golden Gate. The result will be a major flood even with minor amounts of sea level rise. 

Chapter two of Albany’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), although slightly dated, has more good information on these topics. The problem is no one seems to be thinking through the implications of chapter two. The disconnect between chapter two of CAP and the Voices to Vision report is mind-boggling.

In Albany, we are not paying enough attention to what climate change will bring. In our fair city the litmus test for environmental correctness is arguing about what portion of the waterfront will be devoted to open space. And that’s for land that we don’t even own. The process is a lot like paying $650,000 for a ticket to board the Titanic so we can discuss how to rearrange the deck chairs, even though it’s not clear we will ever be allowed to touch them.

It’s time to get real. The waterfront cannot be saved, short of creating a mini New Orleans in the Bay with massive amounts of landfill and ever-growing dikes. But unlike the real New Orleans, this one will come with earthquakes.

The word Albany needs to embrace is “triage.” What can we save, and what should we let go? How should we cope with rising sea levels and bigger storms? How will we deal with clogged storm drains and uprooted trees?

In 1988 was the year climate scientist James Hansen first testified to Congress about how climate change will affect our future. That was a generation ago. A few generations from now, our grandchildren in Albany will look back at this time period, read about our Voices to Vision process and our antediluvian obsession with the waterfront, and they will say to themselves, “what were those people thinking?” We owe it to them to do better.

Have an idea for a guest column? Email albany@patch.com.

lubov mazur February 11, 2012 at 10:52 PM
I'll be two blocks from the beach. I'll bet there will be dogs on it.
Gary Tang February 12, 2012 at 05:37 PM
When your property is underwater, by the definition of real estate law, you own nothing unless we change the law. Therefore, you might consider selling before the sea level reaches 200 feet.
Michael Barnes February 12, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Gary, the obvious question is whether the race track (or any subsequent owner) will still owe parcel tax and other tax revenue to the city as their property begins to flood. Any thoughts?
Craig Westbrooke February 12, 2012 at 08:07 PM
should make all the disclosure laws interesting...do we have to tell a prospective buyer that the property could be underwater 300 years from now? :-) is there a lawyer in the house?
Gary Tang February 12, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Answer to this question can be found from the recent landslides in Pacifica where property owners lost their properties. I do not know how the County treat them. If their ownershp were intact even having no soil, they can always donate the property to the Governments at $0 value to get away, but this method must clear from a real estate attorney for viability.
Gary Tang February 12, 2012 at 09:38 PM
When this situation is generally accepted knowledge, then we have to disclose. For now, this knowledge is speculative and limited to the few of us hawking the Patches; some people do not accept this information. Many homes in some coastal California lose land into the Pacific Ocean daily, but their price tags are in the millions; buyers know exactly their diminishing land and still pay big dollars. There are options this community can take as a whole is a solution by city planning. As long you can build homes over water, you still have the real estate with modification in the definition of real estate and perhaps the legal description. A creative developer and city planner can lead us out of our speculative situation if it ever becames an issue.
Michael Barnes February 13, 2012 at 02:31 AM
Craig, I wonder how much of this is covered under current law about disclosing flood risk. Actually, I saw a presentation at LBNL recently by a researcher from England who was trying to couple global climate models to regional flood forecast models. The funder? An insurance company. They are getting worried. If devastating floods occur every 10 years instead of every 100 years, insurers who provide flood coverage might be in trouble.
Gary Tang February 13, 2012 at 05:20 AM
Michael, We work under the legally recognized flood map. The 200 feet flood is not yet a legal document. If the 200 feet flood is legally accepted, what would happen to the existing buildings in the United States? Most downtowns in this country will become undesirable. Maybe half of San Francisco will be gone? Maybe we have to move to Colorado mountains.
Michael Barnes February 13, 2012 at 06:31 PM
Gary, sorry if I was not clear. Insurance companies are beginning to worry about the bigger storms the come with climate change, not just sea level rise. This is true for regions far from oceans. Witness the recent flooding damage in the Midwest and New England. Years ago, as a high school student, I spent a summer working for the Army Corps of Engineers. I spent some of that time helping to analyze flood plains and flood risk. As storms get bigger, flood plains get bigger, and homes incur higher risks of flooding. There are legal requirements to disclose flood risk when selling a home, but it's getting hard to know just what the flood risk is. If we do have an El Nino soon, we may find out the hard way. But this isn't really new--California has a history of major flooding, especially when unusually warm winter storms dump rain (not snow) in the Sierras. There will be more of that in the future.
lubov mazur February 13, 2012 at 07:04 PM
I know how easy it is to read a comment and infer an angry tone in it, so please read this with the assumption that the tone is both amazement and sadness. In 1970 in both Oceanography and Marine Biology classes I was told about climate change due to the release of stored carbon (in the form of plant material stored in dgeological formations, limestones, and corals). At the time the concern was acid rain from the burning of coal as well as the more difficult to remediate problems with the widespread consumption of all fossil fuels. With the release of stored carbon global climate changes driven by atmospheric warming would occur: more and stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, precipitation pattern changes, ocean ice melting leading to decreased reflectivity and further warming, permafrost loss with commensurate carbon release when the stored vegetation decays adding to the cycle, ocean acidification leading to the loss of carboniferous deposits and the inability of marine organisms to carry out calcium shell building, collapse of phytoplankton (producers of our oxygen far more than terrestrial vegetation), cessation of ocean currents and upwelling causing collapse of marine organism populations.The list of interconnected results is longer than this, but I learned this more than 40 years ago so forgive me for leaving out some of the factors. My amazement is that people think the global warming buzz is something new. Nobody believed it until it started to hit close to home.
Gary Tang February 13, 2012 at 10:21 PM
Lubov, good history of time line. People move slowly when action is required; but many will be fast when it is free. It is just human nature.
Mac McCurdy February 14, 2012 at 01:07 AM
The Mauna Loa Observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawaii is recongized as a reliable station for the measurment of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. In 1958 the first measurements came in at around 315ppm (parts per million) In 2012 the measurement is 393ppm. To put this in better perspective, let's take this down to the 100,000 level. In a stadium of 100,000 fans, in 1958 31 fans (rounding) wore red jerseys. Today 39 fans wear red jerseys, an increase of eight red jerseys over 54 years.
Alan Riffer February 14, 2012 at 01:30 AM
That doesn't sound like many red jerseys. On the other hand, it is a 25% increase, which sounds like a lot. Is the rate of change increasing or decreasing? What are the consequences of various levels of CO2 concentration? The numbers you have provided have no context, and thus no significance.
lubov mazur February 14, 2012 at 01:38 AM
In the stadium, the red jersey people have smallpox. They have increased their population by 25% in 54 years, most of them in the last 15 years, and the rate of increase is increasing. Do you want to leave? The exits are locked. The fix for this will happen inside the stadium or not at all. As a side note, if the stadium is stripped of life, the outside environment (the rest of the universe) will take no notice.
Gary Tang February 14, 2012 at 02:31 AM
Alan and Lubov are right. whole number does not tell much. The growth rate is the number we need to look at.
Michael Barnes February 14, 2012 at 05:08 AM
Many climate scientists and energy researchers have settled on what's known as the "two degree line" for avoiding uncontrolled climate change. That' s roughly equivalent to 450 ppm carbon dioxide. See, for example, the executive summary from the 2011 report of the International Energy Agency, usually a stodgy bunch of ex-oil analysts. If IEA is concerned, you should be concerned. Their main point is that we have five years to make significant progress in reducing CO2 emissions. If it's business-as-usual until 2017, we are locked in. All the carbon we could emit until 2035 will already be in the atmosphere, and new energy sources will have to be zero-carbon to hold the two degree line: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/docs/weo2011/executive_summary.pdf Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035, leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly. Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment avoided in the power sector before 2020 an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.
Mac McCurdy February 14, 2012 at 05:33 AM
I’ll attempt to respond to Alan and Lubov as best I can. In regard to Alan’s point about a 25% increase in CO2, if you start the vertical axis of your graph at 315ppm and make a scale to 393ppm, you can get a very steep trend line across time. If, however, you scale your vertical axis based on parts per million of atmosphere, your trend line won’t make it onto the radar screen-because the CO2 increase is too small (less than 1%) to show up on the graph. I think Lubov makes a different point. There is no argument that CO2 is a heat trapper that can retain the Earth’s heat. But since the amount of CO2 is so small relative to the total atmosphere, the question is whether its greenhouse effect PER SE can explain global warming or climate change. And so we are told that CO2 has powers to disturb the atmospheric balance and contribute to warming beyond it own inherent heat- trapping power. (Lubov’s “small pox”) That is, the atmosphere is viewed as very sensitive to increases in CO2 that cause “positive feedbacks", i.e. increases in the earth’s temperature. But there are reputable scientists who say that the atmosphere isn’t as sensitive to CO2 as claimed and that sun activity, ocean changes, and cloud cover are the more likely factors that influence global warming. With the advent of satellite measurements of global temperature and cloud cover, we may eventually get a better handle on these issues.
Jez H February 14, 2012 at 06:26 AM
@Mac The issue of whether it's a 25% relative change or a 1% absolute change is a red herring. I'll note though that eating much less than 1% of your body weight in arsenic is sufficient to kill you. As to your second point, the problem is that global warming leads to a cycle which increases the levels of water vapour and methane in the atmosphere. The experiments you discuss have already been performed, and the data is in: http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2009/2009JD011800.shtml
Jim Beller February 14, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Nobody has mentioned geoengineering - the (perhaps) solution that will allow us to have economic and population growth while keeping temperatures low enough to forestall disaster. We've already gone too far to turn back through conservation, soon we will start injecting crap into the atmosphere to block the sun.
Mac McCurdy February 14, 2012 at 08:14 PM
@Jez H. Thanks for the comment. When I spoke of “less than 1%” I was being charitable. In my stadium analogy, at 100,000 fans, 1% would equal 1000 fans. We are currently talking roughly 40 fans at that level. This would be expressed as 0.040% I think, or forty hundreds of 1 percent? But a “trace gas” for sure. Talking about a percentage of increase without referencing the total universe in which something resides is misleading. If you have one of something, and you acquire one more, you’ve just experienced a 100% increase. But, hey, you’ve still only got two of them, which often ain’t much. I heard your arsenic point this very morning from my Honey as she presented me my Valentine’s card. (My global warming views deeply annoy her, but she recognizes a great dishwasher when she sees one.) According to Sherlock Holmes if you take arsenic in very tiny amounts every day, you can develop a tolerance for it to where the bigger doses later on won’t kill you. Maybe the Earth’s atmosphere could learn something here from Sherlock. Regarding methane, yes, it’s a heat trapper alright. Apparently 25 times more potent as CO2. On a positive note, however, at around 0.00017%, it currently represents a very tiny portion of the Earth’s atmosphere. One source of methane is termites that work diligently to turn your nice wooden house into methane. So fight them! If termite control isn’t included in Albany’s CAP program, it should be!
Michael Barnes February 14, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Jim, volcanic eruptions like Mt. Pinatubo (1991) or Krakatoa (1883) are natural experiments in geoengineering that lowered global temperatures for years. We know we can lower temperatures with geoengineering--at the cost of spewing tremendous amounts of pollution into the atmosphere. Still many researchers don't think geoengineering should be taken off the table. But if we had the scientific knowledge and the international political coordination to make geoengineering work, than we probably could do the other more effective solutions first, things like biofuels, CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), more efficient solar power, better batteries, etc. And if because of geoengineering we allow levels of CO2 in atmosphere to rise to dangerously high levels, we can't stop. So we might be stuck with geoengineering, even if there turns out to be serious unintended consequences.
Michael Barnes February 14, 2012 at 11:14 PM
Based on my conversations with climate scientists and reading the literature, I'd say you are only partly correct. Warming effect of CO2 in atmosphere has been understood by physicists for decades. Sun activity has very little explanatory power. I'm not sure what you mean by ocean changes, so I can't comment on that. Cloud cover still remains a problem in climate models, but I have never talked to nor read anything from a credible scientist who believes that changes in cloud cover will solve the problems resulting from climate change. The arguments about satellite temperature data have mostly been resolved. The satellites don't measure atmospheric temperature directly, rather they record microwave radiation data that is used to infer temperature. Once the errors were cleared up in this process, the satellite and terrestrial data were found to be consistent with climate models.
Michael Barnes February 14, 2012 at 11:25 PM
Methane, along with nitrous oxide, is a more potent green house gas (GHG) than CO2, but it much more chemically active, so it's lifetime in the atmosphere is relatively short--about a decade. CO2 is chemically inert, so it last centuries in the atmosphere, and it presence is projected to keep in growing. In the long run, CO2 is the bigger problem. Technically, it's the bacteria in the termite gut that produces methane, just as it does in cows, another critter that digests cellulose. Wet rice agriculture is a big source, along with leaks from fossil fuel production. Livestock production is a major source of GHG.
Catherine Sutton February 17, 2012 at 02:38 AM
This is why we need to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. If the world gets its hands on all that filthy oil up there in Canada (and they have as much as Saudi Arabia, only filthier by many degrees), the chance of us ever again reaching the "safe" level of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is very, very small. In fact, in James Hansen's opinion (and he's a respected climatologist), it could lead to exponential global warming and "game over for the planet." That is not a future I want for the children of this world, in Albany or anywhere: unpredictable storms, droughts, temperature changes wreaking havoc with shorelines, manufacturing, property, the oceans, long-distance transportation, growing cycles, food prices, nature. I don't even want to give that scenario the time of day. People, let's begin a massive reduction in our personal use of carbon-based fuel now! Leave the car at home and get a bike; discover public transport; walk places. Wear sweaters at home and plug the energy leaks good. Learn how to grow some of our own food, make clothes. Get to know and share stuff with neighbors. These are all simple steps we can take and yet I know how many distractions there are - the corporate-owned media may be the biggest. And please write our senators a letter telling them to reject any shenanigans to push through the pipeline (www.350.org). We have a week and a half before a crucial senate vote.
Tatter Salad February 23, 2012 at 07:36 AM
Yes, the world has been on a warming trend since the late 1600's. Since 2010, temperatures have been dipping instead of rising; yet the pattern recently is completely consistent with documented cycles over the past 420 thousand years. We appear to be on the 5th high-temp peak that shows up every 150 thousand years, nothing more, nothing less. All of this would be occurring independent of human activities, but human activities may or MAY NOT be significantly facilitating warming, and - may be moot, as no one has an answer as to just why there's been a cooling the past 4 years. But, there is nothing statistically remarkable in any of it. Anyone driving along the I-5 can see former beaches to the west of the Freeway. Under the ice on Greenland has been found 500 farms. Anyone that has skin-dived off our coast notes the consistent 'under water cliff', that was hewn when sea levels were 25 feet lower. I once made a snowman in Golden Gate Park, but I probably won't again. There is one thing consistent: things change... we adapt; but those on Albany hill need not seek permits to add boat docks just yet IMHO.
Don Ford February 24, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Tatter...now you have blown my master plan to get rich by purchasing select property around the hill to create a new Catalina North. Curse you Tatter Salad! Now, thanks to you...I'll have to continue purchasing Lottery tickets for my retirement strategy....
Jez H February 25, 2012 at 01:14 AM
> the pattern recently is completely consistent with documented cycles > over the past 420 thousand years Nope, the "hockey stick" pattern that has been demonstrated by multiple independent studies is definitely not "completely consistent with documented cycles". It _is_ however consistent with global warming caused by CO2 emissions caused by human burning of fossil fuels. I'm not sure what your source is for "cooling the past 4 years" - perhaps you could provide it? There have been cold spells in December 2009 and January 2010 - counterbalanced by unusually warm spells in Greenland, eastern Siberia, and the Arctic ocean - caused by a strongly negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation. Yes, the world has seen hotter temperatures before. The problem is that those changes happened over tens of thousands of years, not the century or two that we'll see as a result of anthropogenic global warming.
Tatter Salad March 02, 2012 at 01:50 AM
References: http://www.planetseed.com/files/uploadedimages/Science/Earth_Science/Global_Climate_Change_and_Energy/Related_Articles/global_temp2.jpg
Michael Barnes March 23, 2012 at 05:49 AM
Interesting report out on climate change and flood risk on U.S. coastlines, including information disaggregated down to level of good ol' Albany, CA. I read the attached spreadsheet information to say there is a 50/50 chance of flood three feet above high tide by year 2020. Albany info here in both tinyurl and long links: http://tinyurl.com/829mlvd http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/surgingseas/place/cities/CA/Albany#show=cities&center=14/37.8934/-122.3188 And as for the bizarre heat wave in the Eastern part of the continent, the link below is good. Even formerly skeptical meteorologists are beginning to use words like "surreal" to describe what is going on with the weather : http://tinyurl.com/722f3jq http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2012/03/22/448839/march-madness-unprecedented-event-modern-us-weather-records-began/
Jez H November 28, 2012 at 02:05 AM
The full article you reference is here: http://www.planetseed.com/relatedarticle/temperature-change-history The problem is that most scientists are now predicting a 2-4 degrees celsius rise _this century_. That would take us to a higher temperature than has been experienced in the last 500,000 years according to the data in this article - but in the course of less than 100 years. However you look at it, that's catastrophic.

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