Travis directed his staff to research the issue. In 2007 they handed him a report that foretold catastrophe. The agency produced maps with colorful, frightening flood projections and shared it with local policymakers. Trillions of dollars in public and private infrastructure were at risk, Travis told them. The time to prepare was now.
Yet the region’s elected officials and Silicon Valley’s cluster of high-tech firms were deaf to the urgency of his message. No one was planning for higher seas. Their problems were more immediate.
“What I heard a lot was, ‘I’m trying to get my kid into a good college, my wife wants me to lose weight, the car transmission is making a funny noise and you want me to worry about sea level rise?’ ” Travis said. “‘Yeah, I’ll get to that when I prepare my earthquake supplies.’”
Global climate change is warming oceans and melting glaciers, raising seas higher and threatening the people and things that crowd California’s 1,200-mile coastline. Beaches are shrinking and bluffs are being pulverized. And the water’s rise, which had been somewhat steady in the past 100 years, is now accelerating alarmingly, 30 to 40 times faster than in the last century.
In as few as three decades, scientists say, some areas that are now dry will be permanently under water. Other places, miles from the ocean, will flood more regularly and more deeply, as warmer waters spawn more intense storms and the already swollen sea pushes farther onshore, unimpeded.
This winter’s lashing storms that took out parts of Highway 1 are an example of collateral damage: Rising seas are making flood-related events worse because there’s more water available to do damage. Flooding along roads is more frequent and lingers longer. Erosion from more powerful waves works away at bridge footings, undermining spans that are critical to transportation corridors, which themselves are strung along the California coast.
The public cost of armoring the coast with sea walls and breakwaters — not always the right response but sometimes the best short-term option — of lifting up highways and defending airports, railways and power plants surely will be staggering. No one knows what it is. The exhaustive scientific analyses commissioned by the state don’t address cost.
State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont who chairs the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee, would not hazard a guess at the overall cost of shoring up state-owned infrastructure.
“That would be a scary number,” he said.