It could have been a meeting of comic book villains. Plans to build a laser fence around the San Francisco Bay, inflate a giant blockade beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and flood Foster City were all on the table. But surprisingly, these ideas were solutions to one of civilization’s greatest threats: sea level rise resulting from climate change.
The presenters — among whom was a dearth of evil scientists — were the six winners of the international Rising Tides competition. In last night’s public event, the participants answered questions about their plans to mitigate the 55-inch rise in sea level in the San Francisco Bay we might see within the next 100 years. According to competition advisor David Meckel, while we can fight climate change by reducing CO2 emissions now, some sea level rise is inevitable because of the changes already in effect.
The contest, run by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) and funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was meant to generate ideas on “what is possible,” according to Meckel. Plans for funding and immediate feasibility were not as important as identifying and addressing the myriad factors at play in dealing with such a complex problem.
With 130 entries from 18 different countries, solutions were as grand in scale as they were diverse. This seems to have made picking one winner a problem. While contest organizers initially planned to offer $15,000 in prize money to the first place winner, with an additional amount to distribute to others, the jury instead divided all the prize money between six winners.
So, why slate Foster City for flooding? As architect Yumi Lee of LANDplus Design in San Francisco explains, the city was built on land that was originally dredged from the bay for agriculture, and rests only a few inches above sea level. This location represents an area that would be expensive to protect from encroaching waters, but could continue to exist if it restructured with high density planning and partially flooded. Lee and her teammate Yeon Tae Kim suggest that some areas, like the San Francisco Airport, can be easily protected, while other regions should be left undeveloped so that wetlands can migrate inland as the waters slowly rise.
And while blocking the waters under the Golden Gate might seem ecologically unthinkable, the engineers from firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are talking about a few hours once or twice a year. That is about how often extreme high tides will affect the San Francisco Bay, according to their mathematical model. Their proposed BayARC device would lie dormant beneath the two main supports of the bridge on the ocean floor. When tidal surges affected the region, a tube spanning the waters would inflate, floating to the surface and pulling taut a cloth dam that would “skim the tide” for a few hours.
Impractical? Try this: a series of lasers running horizontally around the Bay, creating a real-life visual of the dikes we’d have to build to keep the waters at bay. If this sounds like a silly idea you came up with while complaining to friends (over a pitcher of beer?) that understanding the realities of climate change was too abstract for the layperson, you’re not far off. Presenter Thom Faulders said he knows that the idea won’t come to fruition, but that it was a way to discuss making the abstract a reality… before it becomes a necessary evil.
Now that the ideas have been hatched, the BCDC has started taking the show on the road. According to Meckel, the Commission wanted the ideas to be applicable to estuaries around the world, and similar government agencies have taken a look at entries. Says Meckel of an agency in Chicago, “They were shitting their pants, saying, ‘you’re a regulatory agency!'” in response to the contest’s a proactive approach to sea level rise.