California Sinkin’: What Rising Sea Levels Will Mean for the Golden State

Is the Left Coast about to become ‘Waterworld’? The Daily Beast’s Alex Klein asks (and answers) your questions about a scary new scientific study.

06.30.12 8:45 AM ET

That’s it, I’m grabbing a raft and teaming up with Kevin Costner.

Don’t panic—yet. Yes, the new National Research Council report says that Californian tidal waters could rise as much as 5.5 feet by 2100. But the process will start slowly. In 20 years, sea levels will only have gone up by about a foot—in 40, about two feet.

Can we trust these eggheads?

Unfortunately, yes. The study is peer reviewed, government funded, and sponsored by the three Pacific coast states, as well as seven independent research institutions. It’s the most comprehensive report of its kind centering on the West Coast. It’s not John Cusack misreading Mayans.

So our most prosperous state is slowly sliding into the ocean?

Yes, and some of the best parts of it, too. Santa Barbara, San Diego, Monterey, and Marin will all lose acres of beautiful coastline. Los Angeles will lose its best beaches: Long Beach, Venice, Santa Monica. And (sorry, Seth and Summer) Orange County will have to relocate more than 110,000 people.

What’s the upshot?

Rising sea levels and sinking shores will worsen flooding and damage the already-ailing California economy. Climate Central predicts that a five-and-a-half-foot sea-level rise in San Francisco would displace 1.6 percent of the urban population there. That’s billions of dollars in lost land, and the whole Bay Area would suffer. San Mateo, for example, has 110,000 people at risk. Worse still, Courteney Cox's classy Malibu beach house could effectively become a cruise ship as early as 2050.

Yes, but she and other Left Coasters have a century to escape to dry land, right?

Actually, if this study is right, San Francisco International Airport could be underwater within two decades.

Well, at least San Franciscans stuck in the city could take solace in the 49ers.

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Unfortunately, by century’s end, Candlestick Park would probably be partially flooded as well. In fact, many of the city’s best sights, from San Carlos to Alcatraz, would have to build new levees or face flooding. If sea levels keep rising after 2100, we might even have to worry about the famously picturesque Flood Building. (Really.) Wetland wildlife would get unhealthily wet, damaging unique ecosystems.

Would San Fran still be worth the trip? And what about the rest of California?

Fortunately, San Francisco’s historic boats would float free. In Long Beach, the good old Queen Mary and Spruce Goose could finally sail again. Since the Monterrey Aquarium is a comfortable 29 feet above sea level, the fish likely won’t escape Free Willy style. And on the new, pavement beaches, surfers would enjoy the highest, gnarliest waves in history.

More worrisome: along the coast, the Pacific Institute predicts flood risk to more than 30 hospitals, 80 schools, 17 police stations, 16 fire stations, and hundreds of protected environmental sites.

Why is California, in particular, so up the creek? Is this somehow Arnie’s fault?

Geology is to blame. Parts of the Golden State are actually sinking, tens of centimeters a year, due to tectonic plate slides and drained underground aquifers. By contrast, Washingtonians and Oregonians are seeing a nice 1mm uplift per year—great for downhill skiing. (And by the way, this study was commissioned by a 2008 executive order from none other than then-governor Schwarzenegger.)

How could this get any worse?

If there’s a big earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, it will all happen even faster.

So should Californians cut their losses and head to the cold, pushy Northeast?

Well, according to another recent study, sea levels along the East Coast are rising 3 to 4 times faster than the rest of the world.

Nepal it is, then.