No place is immune to climate change—and sea level rise is quickly bringing its effects to Marin
It was an early overcast morning on December 3, 2014 and Mill Valley was gridlocked. Following a major rain storm, flooding and traffic jams extended from Marin City to Novato. A few stray kayakers and rafters resorted to paddling over what were once busy streets and parking lots. The Mill Valley-Sausalito multi-use pathway, Manzanita Park and Ride, as well as several exits on 101 were all made inaccessible under feet of rain and sea water. The situation became so dire that the Mill Valley Police Department was forced to release a statement requesting that all residents stay off the roads: “Due to heavy traffic congestion and flooding in Mill Valley everyone is advised to remain home unless they MUST leave.”
The city, of course, eventually recovered. Traffic flow returned to normal, fallen branches and other scattered debris were cleared, and people returned to work and school. However, according to multiple studies on the Marin coastline, climate change-induced sea level rise (SLR) could cause a permanent increase in the ocean’s water level and as a result, severe flooding could become a constant reality.
On a global scale, sea level rise is primarily caused by the release of greenhouse gases that prevent heat from escaping the atmosphere. The trapped heat is absorbed by the ocean, and as the temperature of the water increases, the water expands, leading to SLR. Overall, the National Ocean Service has tracked about 1/8th of an inch of sea and level rise each year mostly due to this process.
According to the 2014 Richardson Bay Shoreline Study conducted by Marin County Watershed Program, the sea level in Marin County is predicted to rise 1-12 inches by 2030, 2-36 inches by 2070, and 3-60 inches by 2100.
Although the Richardson Bay study acknowledges that exact values cannot be precisely determined due to the numerous variables affecting SLR, other estimates like the Marin Bay Waterfront Adaptation and Vulnerability Evaluation (BayWave) have predicted similar ranges in growth as well as similar impacts to infrastructure.
“It’s hard to quantify exactly how much infrastructure is at risk or precisely how high the sea will rise in the bay,” Chris Choo, the Marin County water resources principle planner, said. “But, you’re talking about transportation and parking, and if 101 floods it affects [those] regionally. It impacts fire, police, and our schools. It’s not a good situation regardless.”
Choo also argues that regardless of prevailing climate change denialism, Marin residents can find common ground as they are forced to acknowledge current flooding conditions. “It’s a very liberal area, but there definitely are folks who don’t believe in the science and resent the fact that we’re spending money on this issue … But, we already see Manzanita flood 30 times a year and plenty of other flooding which we need to address anyway. So we can work with them on that. I think that’s more useful than arguing.”
Just an increase of sea levels by a foot, which could come in less than two decades, would flood the salt marshes in front of the multi-use pathway next to the Tam field. This would destroy the habitat for species like the San Pablo Song Sparrow, Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, and the flowering plant Point Reyes Bird’s Beak, all of which are already at risk of becoming endangered.
With 36 inches of SLR, much of the southwestern end of Miller Avenue in front of the athletic fields would be flooded, cutting off the primary way to access Tam from Tam Valley. Five feet would inundate the whole of the school’s athletic fields including the football, softball, and baseball fields. If annual storms resulted in water level temporarily rising even higher Gus Gym, the front parking lot, and the boys locker room could be indicated by half an inch of water. In addition to Tam, the Mill Valley to Sausalito bike path, the Redwoods Retirement Community, the southern part of Sycamore avenue where Mill Valley Middle School is located, and resident housing could be flooded—provided no infrastructure is built to protect them. Marin City shopping center and nearby segment of Highway 101 are also at risk.
The county has begun to take steps to educate about and reduce the impact of SLR in Marin. The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires that the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emission to the levels they were at in the 1990s by 2020. As a result, the Marin Climate and Energy Partnership (MCEP) was created to target the county’s emissions. So far, by setting up community education programs like Resilient Neighborhoods, adopting a 100 percent renewable energy program known as Deep Green, and installing solar panels on government buildings, the MCEP has managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent since 2005 when the county was producing 1,944,365 metric tons of greenhouse gases.
As well as countywide projects, individual clubs and student groups are working to fight climate change. “We are working on implementing a compost program at Tam,” junior Megan Engelbrecht, president of the Environmental Club, said. “By doing this we’ll reduce the amount of food waste in landfills, which is known to cause the release of methane gas and other greenhouse gases that have contributed in climate change.” Although Engelbrechten said her club had not yet discussed sea level rise or made plans to address it in particular, she hopes to bring it up in a future meeting.
Another student activist group, Generation Our Climate, a group of young adults from San Francisco and Marin County, have worked with many municipal governments throughout the Bay Area encouraging them to adopt climate change mitigation policies.
“Our goal as a youth organization is to inspire, empower, and mobilize a generation to take positive action on climate change,” freshman Mimi Lawrence, a member of Generation Our Climate, said. “As a group we’ve testified in front of local governments to make our voices heard to politicians. I testified in front of the Mill Valley City Council three times and urged them to choose “Deep Green” for town business and they did.”
Although there are many groups attempting to fight SLR and climate change, there’s still a question as to whether individual Marin residents are working to reduce their own environmental impact.
“I think the predominant response [to climate change] is procrastination,” Doug Wilson, the 2nd Vice President of The Marine Conservation League, said. “People realize that there is a huge amount of climate change, but continue to drive gas guzzlers. It’s seen as an issue on the horizon … in reality it’s imminent.”
According to the Marin Climate and Energy Partnership, the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Marin are the residential (22 percent) and transportation (53 percent) sectors which are made up of mostly county residents.
Senior Cal Kuhn believes that inaction extends to students as well. “I would say that there is a very small portion of my peers who actually do anything in their life to help mitigate climate change. The majority of them care, but talk is cheap, ” he said.
Sophomore Emily Kavanaugh believes that this phenomenon, at least in young people, is due to them feeling overwhelmed. “I think everyone’s too scared to fully think about [climate change]. Older generation people may just not believe it, but in general my peers are very tired. There’s so many horrible things happening right now that it’s yet another thing that adds to cynicism and stress for my generation. We feel really powerless to do anything about it,” she said.
However, even if climate change and SLR seem unmanageable for younger generations, city officials and global warming groups argue that there are small steps everyone can take to combat the issue.
“We really need help from the students to reduce excess driving in the community,” Mill Valley Mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said. “Carpooling, taking the bus, walking and biking [are important] from students as well as the adults. If you have to drive, drive an electric vehicle.”
Additionally, Lawrence believes that taking part in community groups can also help to fight climate change. “The best thing one person can do is to be a part of a movement or organization. Set goals and do them. Get houses to choose renewable energy or create bike to school programs. Make it cool to be green. We need to make changes now because our future depends on it.”
Peters emphasized making small daily changes, instead of becoming overwhelmed trying to fix the entirety of SLR and climate change issue. “A lot of us don’t know what we can do individually. But we have to be willing to take a look at our own carbon footprint. Pick a couple of things you can do each week and change them. You can’t deal with everything all at once. There will have to be a lot of changes, but we have to go on and keep trying anyway.”
Graphics by Griffin Chen and Samantha Ferro