Santa Barbara prepares for impending sea level rise
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The Santa Barbara City Council formed a Sea Level Rise (SLR) Adaptation Plan Subcommittee this past October. Its purpose: to assist in the preparation of a plan to analyze local vulnerabilities to sea level rise, and strategize what can be done to combat such vulnerabilities. Since the formation of the subcommittee, a draft of the plan has been released, and the final plan is scheduled to be released to the public in the spring of 2019.
The melting of Arctic ice sheets and the overall rise in temperature of the earth’s oceans has caused the sea level to rise roughly 250 millimeters in the last 150 years according to NASA. While globally sea levels have increased about 3.2 millimeters a year since the early 1990s, Santa Barbara has experienced very little sea level rise to date. That being said, the rate at which the sea level is rising, the region is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. In fact, according to the Santa Barbara Independent, by the year 2100 the sea level off the coast of Santa Barbara is predicted to rise anywhere from 5 to 6.6 feet (the variation in these predictions can be accounted for the in measurement of how rapidly ice sheets are melting due to carbon in the atmosphere, a measurement that is constantly being updated as scientists reach a better understanding of this process).
Facing the imminent rise in sea level, the subcommittee has been hard at work ensuring the city has a suitable plan to combat the threats that Santa Barbara will face in mere decades. A Vulnerability Assessment was conducted in the winter of 2018 to pinpoint exactly which areas would be affected and how, in order to properly inform the subcommittee on how best to proceed with their planning. According to the assessment, “most of the sandy beaches in the city’s westerly coastal bluff areas are likely to be lost from beach erosion,” and “portions of the wastewater system could be affected by tidal inundation and storm flooding” by 2060. Bluff erosion is predicted to increase by 40 percent at this time as well, and local harbors like Stearns Wharf could face substantial setbacks. By 2100, all of these disasters and others are projected to reach far more devastating proportions if ignored and left unchecked. Fortunately, according to subcommittee member Melissa Hetrick, the city has “a rainbow of options” before it to combat sea level rise.
The subcommittee has since released a draft of the adaptation plan after carefully considering the city’s vulnerabilities, and weighing them against the “feasibility, economic impacts, and environmental strategies of various adaptation strategies.” Such adaptation strategies were broken down into three general categories for evaluation: the first being the protection of already-existing structures via seawalls, groins, tide gates, and beach nourishment; the second being the accommodation of the aforementioned structures via elevation or structure modifications; the third being retreat via structure relocation and development limitations. Of course, no easy answer has been found—each adaptation strategy has significant pros and cons. In addition, any sort of plan will take at least 10 years, namely because of permit requirements. Even with the obstacles however, the city of Santa Barbara can rest assured that in the face of rising sea levels it will have a plan.