Scientists meet in La Jolla to discuss rising sea level

A view of the shoreline at Calumet Park in Bird Rock.
A view of the shoreline at Calumet Park in Bird Rock.
(Ashley Mackin)

Editor’s note:

This is the conclusion of a two-part series reporting on a high-level, international workshop on sea-level rise, held at UC San Diego, Sept. 5-7. Part 1 (published in the Sept. 20 issue of La Jolla Light and posted online at examined research findings and strategies to combat and adapt to projected short- and long-term rises in sea level. The following examines a range of policy measures coastal cities around the world are already adopting in light of sea-level rise.

By Lynne Friedmann

There is broad consensus among scientists that climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions from human activities is real and on-going and that a major consequence is that global sea level is rising and will inundate parts of many cities and other coastal landscapes. Under current understanding, the global sea level is projected to rise (over 2000 levels) by 0.2 to 0.4 meters (0.7 to 1.3 feet) by the year 2050 and 0.8 to 1.4 meters (2.6 to 2.6 feet) by 2100.

“Sea-level rise is not a tsunami, but a creeping threat,” said Azizan Abu Samah, Professor of Geography and Coordinator of the Malaysian Antarctic Program, University of Malaya, speaking at an International Workshop on Coastal Cities, Climate Change, and Sea-Level Rise, held at UC

San Diego.

So, where do we, as citizens and communities, go from here?

Despite the popular image of “floods” and the destruction of civilization as we know it, sea-level rise is not necessarily an impediment to human development or progress, but rather it is a catalyst for the great and essential societal transformation to sustainability, according to David S. Woodruff, organizer of the workshop and director of the Sustainability Solutions Institute, at UC San Diego.

Tackling sea level rise requires a process that simultaneously addresses scientific, technical, and social issues. This process needs to be able to support local innovative responses (adaptive or mitigation) based

on the best international scientific data

and analyses.

Each city or region can adapt to and/or attempt to mitigate the local threat of inundation. Adaptation may involve planned retreat as infrastructure ages. Mitigation may involve building sea walls. Both types of responses are very expensive and require very long-term planning and funding. The costs of doing nothing are large and

increase with time.

“We need technical and social innovation,” said Steffen Lehmann, director for the Center for Sustainable Design and

Behavior, University of South Australia, who is an architect and urban planner with a focus on “sustainable urbanism.”

“Technology is only useful if embedded in society,” he said. “And, interfaced so well that people use it.”

California is leading the nation in climate change policy. Beginning in the 1960s, the state established innovative institutions to protect California’s 1,900 miles of coastline. This has necessitated a multi-institutional approach given jurisdiction and legal requirements involving owners’ property rights, California Coastal Commission authority, local coastal planning, and non-profit environmental groups (such as the Coastal Conservancy), among others.

Even on the local level, multiple agencies and stakeholders come into play when it comes to addressing sea-level rise.

The City of Los Angeles is a case in point. It shares coastal resources and infrastructure with the cities of Santa Monica and El Segundo. Within the city itself, a top-level participatory process has been put in place to inventory assets, exposure, and the ability to adapt by various city departments, such as the Port of Los Angeles, Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, etc.

“They are institutional knowledge

holders,” said Juliette Hart, Regional Research and Planning Specialist with USC Sea Grant, who helped set up the city

working group.

Universities can contribute to the development of local responses in innovative and cost-effective ways. Lead sponsor of the workshop was the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) a consortium of 42 leading research universities in the Pacific Rim. APRU was founded in 1997, by four visionary presidents and chancellors (USC, UCLA, Caltech, and UC Berkeley) who envisioned an alliance of leading research universities focused on the advancement of the Pacific Rim to contribute to the development of an increasingly integrated Pacific Rim community.

Workshop participants prepared recommendations from the meeting for improving international cooperation on sea-level rise issues. Those recommendations will be presented, in October, to the Kyoto Science and Technology for Society Forum, an annual world gathering of academic, business, and government leaders.