Coming Full-Circle with the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems

CDIP_driving

One of the perks of working in the offices of SCCOOS and CDIP was getting out on the water to help with CDIP wave buoy deployments.

When I was accepted to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship program last November, I couldn’t keep the names of my mentor organizations straight. I knew that I’d be working with four agencies (possibly more!) along the West Coast to analyze oceanographic data in the context of marine debris and ocean acidification. The job sounded fabulous, but I didn’t really have any idea whom I’d be working for.

Twelve months later, I can rattle off the names of my host agencies in one confident breath (try saying ‘Ocean Observing System’ three times fast, with several geographic and governmental qualifiers thrown in, and you get the idea). Because my position is based at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (that’s SCCOOS) in beautiful La Jolla, CA, I have been able to observe many of the day-to-day workings of the oceanographic data collection that SCCOOS employs. SCCOOS is well-known for the array of real-time ocean observing platforms that it has created and maintains. My lunch break ocean views are framed by a Coastal Observing Research and Development Center (CORDC) high-frequency radar (HFR) station that measures real-time surface currents, and the door of my office is marked by a yellow Waverider buoy used by the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) to monitor wave conditions. Both the HFR surface currents and the CDIP wave and sea surface temperature datasets have formed core components of my product development. Best of all, when I have a question, I can simply walk next door to check in with the people who collect the data.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to fully understand the whole process of data collection and manipulation.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to learn about the whole process of data collection and quality control, in addition to using the data to create time-averaged oceanographic products.

A large part of my fellowship involves working with data and agencies outside of Southern California. While the West Coast OOS Regional Associations (RAs) are all housed under the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) network, and share data across geographic boundaries, each RA has its own focus within coastal oceanography and ocean health monitoring. My fellowship has helped me explore these nuances, giving me a better understanding of the variety of coastal environments and marine-related issues around the U.S.

One of the Fellowship side projects that I developed this summer was plotting sea surface temperature (SST) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

One of my Fellowship side projects has been to plot sea surface temperature (SST, above) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

This spring, I had the opportunity to visit another of my host OOSs, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS), along with several of their partner organizations. CeNCOOS is based at the edge of the world-renowned Monterey Bay and Monterey Submarine Canyon, giving it the ideal position to work with a host of academic collaborators, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), UC Santa Cruz, the CSU Moss Landing Marine Lab, Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Naval Research Laboratory. During my visit, I attended a Marine Debris Symposium hosted by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and presented a poster on my Fellowship work connecting Ocean Observing System data to marine debris. The Symposium gave me the opportunity to learn about marine debris cleanup and reduction efforts around California, and connected me with people interested in using the data products I have created. Seeing potential applications for these products motivated me to solve several tricky coding problems to improve my products.

#9 - NANOOS extra small

(Top) In August, I visited several shellfish farms in Oregon and Washington. Jen McWhorter (far left), the SCCOOS Public Relations and Government Outreach Coordinator, and Jen Rhoades (middle left), the IOOS Pacific Region Coordnator, joined me on the tours. Dave Steele (middle right), the owner of Rock Point Oyster Farms, generously organized our tours. (Bottom) I also visited Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, one of the first hatcheries to realize that low-pH waters have been causing problems in shellfish development in recent years (photos courtesy of Jen McWhorter).

In August, I had a wonderful trip to Oregon and Washington to visit my third OOS host, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), and its stakeholders. In recent years, NANOOS has collaborated closely with shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest to help monitor, understand and highlight the detrimental effects of increasing ocean acidification on shellfish growth and survival. During my visit, I toured several shellfish farms to hear how they benefit from collaborations with NANOOS. One aspect of my fellowship has involved updating the West Coast Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory (a list of West Coast OA monitoring equipment and stations), which is being incorporated into the new IOOS Pacific Region OA Portal. Learning firsthand about the impacts of OA on larval growth and shell formation added value and context to the extensive lists of monitoring assets and data that I had been working with.

I also attended several WCGA meetings throughout the year, to help me understand West Coast ocean policy and how my fellowship could contribute meaningful data to West Coast ocean partnerships. I have had the chance to help plan this year’s West Coast Ocean Data Network Meeting, which focused on unveiling the West Coast Ocean Data Portal and associated datasets and connections developed this year, including the WCGA-OOS partnerships that I have helped work on during my Fellowship.

My California Sea Grant Fellowship has been an incredible growth experience. Wrangling Pythons (coding scripts) and refining my knowledge of West Coast oceanography and ocean organization acronyms has helped me realize that integrated, policy-applicable oceanographic work is what I want to do in the future. I will miss working at the incredible Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but will be taking time to travel and pursue my land- and ocean-based interests, including horse polo, bird-watching, tall-boat sailing and SCUBA diving. I will be checking the CDIP wave forecasts religiously as I attempt to learn to surf, and will remain vigilant in my quest to pick up every scrap of beach trash and to educate fellow grocery-shoppers about the environmental benefits of reusable bags. I hope to dive back into the world of oceanography soon, via a Ph.D. program or related work. Maybe someday, I’ll find my way back to the Ocean Observing Systems.

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Sweeping up California’s plastic bags

Plastic bags are easily incorporated into natural systems, and often end up in the ocean, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California's statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing that cycle (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

Plastic bags often end up in rivers and oceans, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing this problem (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

If you’re an environmentalist, California may be the ideal place to live. Not only is the state filled with extensive and diverse natural wonders, but California has traditionally been at the forefront of environmental conservation movements. Despite this tendency, it has taken years of failed legislation, and much work-around and energy from local organizations, for California to finally pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill (SB270), which was introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, was passed by the Senate on Aug. 29 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

The ban didn’t come out of the blue. California, for all its environmental leanings, uses approximately 13 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Numerous cities and counties have passed local plastic bag bans in recent years. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban bags when it enacted a law in April 2007. Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Fairfax followed suit within the next year, and by 2014, 88 California municipalities have been covered by plastic bag bans (the most recent was Davis, which banned plastic bags last October, effective this past July). Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, are cluttering urban areas and natural ecosystems around the world, and can cause significant damage and death to wildlife. Rather than fight an unending battle attempting to clean up plastic litter, local governments have seen the benefit of simply removing single-use plastic bags from the equation.

The bag ban bill has had to fight opposition from several angles. In fact, a previous plastic bag ban attempt was introduced by Padilla last year, but was defeated by three votes. The main opposition comes from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, and claims that a bag ban will result in significant job losses. Others worry that the bag ban will unfairly affect lower-income residents by imposing a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Senator Padilla and proponents of the ban remain unperturbed, citing the overwhelming successes of the numerous local and county bag bans over the past few years, and resident support for those bans.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is  a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

Don’t expect plastic bags to become rare collector’s items anytime soon, though. The ban won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015 for grocery stores, and July 1, 2016 for smaller convenience stores. And it doesn’t cover things like produce bags and plastic dry-cleaning covers.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a crucial step toward reducing the production of plastics that can end up in our waterways and in the ocean, but unfortunately our ecosystems already contain multitudes of plastics. One of the upcoming features of the new WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal is a Marine Viewer tool where marine debris cleanup data can be overlain with other datasets, including city and county bag bans, river and stream watersheds that may carry plastics to the ocean, and coastal surface currents that may affect plastic movements and deposition along the coast. In fact, one of the main goals for the oceanographic products that I’ve created during my Sea Grant fellowship has been to provide information on oceanographic movements that can be used in conjunction with debris cleanup datasets, to determine how plastics may move along the West Coast, and where they might land.

In the end, hopefully California’s plastic bag ban won’t be just another environmental law in our state’s long history of conservation movements. We should use it as key step toward urging our society to reject our ingrained single-use, throwaway mentality, in favor of preserving and reusing the resources we have.

The iconic "plastic bag video" from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California's recent statewide plastic bag ban, although not all disposable plastic bags will be phased out by the law.

“There’s so much beauty in the world” – The iconic “plastic bag video” from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California’s recent statewide plastic bag ban.

 

Hot Summer Oceans

The always-popular La Jolla Shores beaches have been particularly packed this summer, as beachgoers enjoy notably warm waters.

The always-popular La Jolla Shores beaches have been particularly packed this summer, as beachgoers enjoy notably warm waters.

Southern California is famous for its endlessly sunny beaches and surfable waves, but this summer, even natives of the Land of Sunshine have noticed something unusual: ocean temperatures have been exceptionally warm over the past few weeks. While this means that nearly everyone is jumping in the water sans wetsuits, many people are wondering how this year stacks up to previous years, and what is causing such warm oceans.

The Hunt for Red July

According to both satellite SST measurements and in situ buoys that measure the ocean at depth, the waters off California and Oregon have warmed nearly 5oC in some places since the beginning of July. Warm events have also been creeping farther north than usual, bringing comparatively warm 16oC waters almost to the northern border of California.

Sea Surface Temperature (SST) at 0 meters (top row - ocean surface) and 20 m (bottom row) off California for July 8, July 18 and Aug. 8, 2014 (left to right). Data is from the 3 km Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) produced by Dr. Yi Chao at UCLA, and available through SCCOOS. The NOAA SWFSC has noted that an especially warm SST period occurred from July 15-23, as visible by the red-orange-yellow colors moving north.

Follow the rainbow – Ocean temperature at 0 meters (top row) and 20 m (bottom row) off California for July 8, July 18 and Aug. 8, 2014 (left to right). Data are from the 3 km Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) produced by Dr. Yi Chao at UCLA, and available through SCCOOS. The NOAA SWFSC notes that an especially warm SST period occurred from July 15-23, visible by the northward movements of red-orange areas.

In terms of causes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center (NOAA SWFSC) suggests that the warm events may be related to weakening northwesterly summer winds, which usually push surface waters offshore, driving upwelling of deeper, cold waters. If the winds weaken, warm surface waters remain right offshore, even moving northward along the coast.

While beachgoers are jumping into California’s balmy surf with extra zeal, observations of this summer’s warm oceans beg an obvious follow-up question: how does 2014 compare to previous years? Fortunately, the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), along with the other West Coast Ocean Observing System Regional Associations (CeNCOOS, NANOOS and AOOS), was created in order to track exactly these ocean phenomena. And although SCCOOS is only 10 years old, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has been tracking water temperatures for almost 100 years at locations along the California coast, providing long-term datasets that allow us to analyze temperature trends.

Long-term advantages

Water temperature is one of the most easily and frequently measured properties of the ocean, and doesn’t require a scientific degree to detect. Anyone who dips a handheld thermometer or their hand into the water can form their own opinions about “warm” and “cold”. But determining whether the water temperature is actually different from last summer’s sand-filled memories requires a rigorous and systematic record of ocean temperatures.

Manual sea surface temperature measurements exist from as far back as 1917 for the Scripps Pier, 1924 for the Newport Beach Pier, and the 1950s for several other piers along the Southern California Bight. Back then, automated temperature sensors didn’t exist, so measuring water temperature used to require a fair amount of manual labor – someone would have to go out every day, at roughly the same time, and drop a bucket off the end of the pier to capture a water sample, then haul the bucket up and stick a thermometer in. Even more impressive is the fact that, over the past 97 years (in the case of the Scripps Pier), nearly every day from every year has a temperature measurement, producing a record as robust as an automated temperature-measuring system can.

Daily surface and bottom temperature anomaly from the Scripps Pier Manual Shore Station, La Jolla, California.  Anomalies are produced by subtracting the long-term harmonic mean (1916-2001) from the daily temperature (a positive anomaly indicates that temperatures are warmer than average). Temperature data from June 1 to August 5, 2014 (shown in blue) are preliminary and unverified (graphs produced by Melissa Carter of the Shore Stations Program).

Daily surface and bottom temperature anomaly from the Scripps Pier Manual Shore Station, La Jolla, California. Anomalies are produced by subtracting the long-term harmonic mean (1916-2001) from the daily temperature (a positive anomaly indicates that temperatures are warmer than average). Temperature data from June 1 to August 5, 2014 (shown in blue) are preliminary and unverified (Data collection by the Shore Stations Program at SIO, funded by CA Dept. of Parks and Recreation, Division of Boating and Waterways; graphs produced by Melissa Carter of the SSP).

Thanks to the development of modern equipment, SCCOOS now also has several automated means of measuring ocean temperatures around the Southern California Bight, both inshore and offshore. In addition to the Manual Shore Stations program, which is still in use today, SCCOOS has also implemented a network of Automated Shore Station sensors, attached to piers at Scripps, Newport, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. Farther offshore, the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) wave buoys provide point-source temperature data along with wave-tracking information.

Additionally, the SCCOOS/SIO Instrument Development Group (IDG) Spray Glider Program, supported by the NOAA Ocean Climate Observation Program, runs several continuous glider lines off California, providing depth profiles of water temperature along consistent geographic tracks. All of these systems mean that the ocean off California is being consistently measured, giving us a comprehensive picture of changing coastal ocean conditions.

Charting course - Yearly surface ocean temperature in Monterey Bay from 1990-2014. Temperatures from 2014 are shown magenta, and highlight the notably warm events of July and August 2014 (Data collection supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; graphs produced by Reiko Michisaki of the Biological Oceanography Group led by Francisco Chavez.).

Charting course – The Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS) and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have also observed notably warm ocean temperatures this summer. The above graph shows yearly surface ocean temperature in Monterey Bay from 1990-2014, and highlights the notably warm events of July and August 2014 (shown in magenta). Additional graphs are available through the MBARI Project Page (Data collection supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; graphs produced by Reiko Michisaki of the Biological Oceanography Group led by Francisco Chavez.).

 

Cause and effect?

In addition to its own relevance to marine users, ocean temperature, and especially sea surface temperature (SST), is an important indicator of a suite of current and changing ocean conditions. One example is larger-scale, longer-cycle ocean phenomena, such as El Niño/La Niña events. While those anxious about California’s multi-year drought (which should be everyone) are attuned to the buzz about a much-hoped-for El Niño this fall, it’s too soon to say whether, and how, this summer’s warm oceans might be related to a possible El Niño. Although El Niño events do bring anomalously warm waters to the California Current System, the process involves additional factors in other regions of the Pacific (for more information on El Niño, check out these explanations from SCCOOS and NOAA).

Warmer oceans appear to be influencing the biology of the region, too. Recently, beachgoers all along California have noticed thousands of by-the-wind sailors, or Velella velella, washing up at the high-tide line. These transparent-blue jellyfish-like creatures, which look like sand-wrung plastic bags, float along the ocean surface at the mercy of the currents and winds. They are usually found in the warmer waters off Baja California, so scientists speculate that they may be floating north along with the warm intrusions that have been washing the California coast this summer.

By-the-wind-sailor (Velella velella) is a small jellyfish-like organism whose movement is directed by the winds and ocean currents. In the past few weeks, thousands of these creatures have washed up along California's shores over the past few weeks. Although no one is sure why, scientists speculate that Velella may be moving north with California's recent warm water intrusions.

By-the-wind-sailor (Velella velella) is a small jellyfish-like organism whose movement is directed by the winds and ocean currents. In the past few weeks, thousands of these creatures have washed up along California’s shores over the past few weeks. Although no one is sure why, scientists speculate that Velella may be moving north with California’s recent warm water intrusions.

Fishermen who frequent Southern California’s piers have also been reaping the benefits of large schools of tropical fish temporarily moving north and inshore. Right now, you don’t need a boat to catch a yellowfin tuna – just drop a line in the water off the Ocean Beach Pier, and something is bound to bite. NOAA SWFSC’s annual salmon trawls off Tomales Bay have also noticed ocean sunfish (Mola mola) and sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) closer to shore and farther north than they are typically found.

Thermal causes and effects and future predictions, while endlessly entertaining to speculate on, are still uncertain (even SCCOOS, for all its wizardry with ocean measurements, cannot make definite long-term predictions). But if you’re eyeing the surf and considering leaving work early to hit your board, rest assured that you’ll have a warm ride on the waves. And while you’re out there, stick a thermometer in the water and make a note of the number. When it comes to the oceans, we need al the monitoring we can get.

 

Tracking Ocean Acidification down the West Coast

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

As a Californian, I had only heard snippets about ocean acidification (OA) before I started my Sea Grant Fellowship. Unlike the Mississippi River Delta, California isn’t infamous for large hypoxic “dead zones” created by agricultural nutrient run-off. And unlike Washington and Oregon, California isn’t known worldwide for its oyster hatcheries and shellfish farms, which have been heavily impacted by OA in the last several years. In fact, I didn’t know shellfish farms existed in Southern California until I visited the Carlsbad Aquafarm, which is located just north of San Diego.

Carlsbad Aquafarm is a low-key shellfish operation tucked into the same lagoon that houses the Carlsbad Nuclear Power Plant, right across the road from North San Diego County’s beautiful beaches. But the single-story sheds, and neat rows of unassuming black and grey buoys suspending underwater growth structures stretched across the lagoon, belie the fact that the farm sustains an impressive shellfish business, with nearly 1 million oysters alone currently growing in the water.

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

Carlsbad Aquafarm, started in 1990, raises oysters, mussels, clams, abalone, scallops and seaweed to sell to Southern California farmer’s markets and wholesale seafood dealers, such as Santa Monica Seafood. Although several other shellfish aquafarms exist throughout California, including Hog Island Oyster Farm in Tomales Bay and the emerging Catalina Sea Ranch (which so far only grows mussels) off Huntington Beach, Carlsbad Aquafarm is currently Southern California’s only multi-species shellfish aquaculture farm.

One of my Fellowship mentor organizations, SCCOOS, is currently working with Professors Burke Hales (Oregon State University), and Todd Martz (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), to install a new partial/total CO2 (pCO2/TCO2) sensor at the Carlsbad Aquafarm. Monitoring the waters off Southern California will provide important ocean baseline comparisons for the low-pH, OA events that our northern neighbors are experiencing, as well as a general picture of how the southern part of the California Current Ecosystem is changing over time. It will also allow Carlsbad Aquafarm to track potential future OA events in its own waters, as the West Coast continues to be impacted by increasing global CO2 emissions and decreasing pH levels.

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Ocean acidification events, and associated shellfish hatchery larvae die-offs, have been a growing problem in Washington and Oregon for the past several years. The British Columbia-based hatchery Island Scallops, which represents about 16 percent of British Columbia’s shellfish production, recently closed its processing plant and laid off a third of its workers because it couldn’t sustain production levels in the face of the deleterious effects that  increasingly low-pH waters were having on its shellfish. Because of the immediacy and substantial, far-reaching economic impacts of OA events on these hatcheries, Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia have implemented extensive systems of pH/pCO2 monitoring sensors to detect these events in real-time, in order to proactively protect shellfish stocks.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

So far, California, and especially Southern California, has experienced fewer noticeable low-pH events than have its northern neighbors. This is partly because Oregon and Washington have experienced stronger wind-driven upwelling of low-pH waters, and partly because California has a smaller-scale shellfish industry than do Oregon and Washington, so potential OA events haven’t been as urgent of a concern. And although Carlsbad Aquafarm has been unaffected overall by OA influences so far, the growers have noticed mussels sloughing off their byssal threads (the proteinaceous biomaterials that they produce to attach themselves to rocks, chains or other substrates) more during periodic lower-pH influxes, a phenomenon that has also been noted by recent research studies.

The West Coast is predicted to face continued decreases in ocean pH levels in coming decades. Models even estimate that by the year 2050, aragonite saturation levels will be permanently below those that can sustain healthy shellfish growth. So California must be as prepared as the rest of the west coast, and begin monitoring now in order to mitigate and avoid harmful effects in the future.

Thank you to Dennis Peterson, head aquaculturist at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, for a fascinating and informative tour!

King Tides on the West Coast

Most people these days know about the effects of climate change. Every day the news reports about the change in weather patterns, the increase of extreme events, changes in snowpack, the retreat of glaciers. The list goes on and on. For the half of the US population that lives on the coast, we hear about sea level rise and coastal inundation and what we might expect for the future.

Still, does the average coastal resident really understand how rising sea levels and coastal inundation will impact them?

(Left) A sidewalk is lost to this King Tide near Rotary Park, Olympia WA. Photo by TallJoyClan, (Right) Water creeps up to mid-sign during a high tide event in La Conner WA. Photo by ConwaySuz

Washington, Oregon, and California are taking proactive steps to make sure that coastal residents, planners, and decision makers alike have the chance to see what sea level rise might look like in their own backyards. It’s called the King Tides Initiative, and every winter brings the opportunity to visualize what a rise in sea level might mean for communities and infrastructure along the West Coast.

The concept began in 2009 in Australia by Phil Watson, the Principle Coastal Specialist of

Park in San Francisco during a large king tide event. Photo by sirgious.

the New South Wales’ Environment Department. They used the term “king tide” to define the high tides that occur when the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon is in alignment. Green Cross Australia continues this initiative, and recently launched a disaster resilience portal Queensland that connects climate awareness with disaster preparedness, working with the research community and advanced Facebook apps to empower people to take tailored steps to address hazard exposure.

These king tides, which take place during the winter along the West Coast, create higher than usual high tides that inundate roads, wetlands, water systems, and more. It’s a stunning preview of what we might experience regularly in the future as a result of rising sea levels.

Seawater almost spilling over this seawall at Alki Beach WA. Photo by dcsdiving.

West Coast states created their own King Tides Initiatives, with regional and local public outreach and education campaigns that ask coastal residents and visitors to photograph high tide events and share them on the photo sharing site Flickr®. By documenting and sharing photos, participants are helping create a living record of vulnerable areas of the coast. Because most photos are licensed under creative commons, they can be accessed and used by anyone. This makes king tide photos a resource for anyone, from teachers to planners to scientists, to communicate the impacts of climate change in a tangible way.

To learn more about the King Tides Initiative in California, I spoke with Marina Psaros, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator for the San Francisco Bay National Estuary Research Reserve.

What has been the biggest impact you’ve seen from the California King Tides campaign?

The king tides initiative is such a simple, powerful way to start a conversation about coastal hazards.  We’ve been able to reach a lot of people who don’t know much about coastal flooding and potential climate change impacts.  We recently held an exhibition of some of the photos at the California Academy of Sciences, and it was amazing to see

Home is inundated in Cairns North Queensland. Photo by Witness King Tides.

people’s immediate, visceral reactions to the images.  Concepts like “tidal inundation” and “sea level rise” are really abstract for most people, but a picture of water slamming up against a well-known landmark is immediately clear.

How can these pictures help us prepare for the future?

These images help engage people on the coast in a conversation about climate change and sea level rise. By participating in king tide events, coastal residents are helping to create a living record of areas that are vulnerable to flooding, and an online resource that can be used by anyone to communicate about coastal hazards. Creating new awareness through social media and other outreach, like the California Academy of Sciences photo exhibition, encourages people to think more proactively about the future of their communities. It also helps decision-makers visualize the impacts sea level rise could have on places where we live, work, and play. 

Can anyone get involved with King Tides?

This hotel on the beach in Yamba New South Wales is lost to a king tide. Photo by Witness King Tides.

 If you have a camera and can get to the coast, yes! Just check your state’s website for king tide events in your area, head out to the coast to take pictures of the king tides, and upload your images to Flickr®. While you’re on the Flickr® site, be sure to check out the rest of the photo pool.  We also encourage people to use these amazing pictures for their own communications – the images are available under a creative commons license. You can also get more information on the initiative through this recent Thank you Ocean podcast: http://www.thankyouocean.org/tag/king-tides/.

NOAA tides gauges and NASA satellites have been recording a global rise in sea level for 150 years.  This rise is linked to a number of atmospheric and oceanic processes; including changes in global temperatures, hydrologic cycles, coverage of glaciers and ice sheets, and storm frequency and intensity. Although high tides are a naturally occurring event, it’s a preview of water levels that climate models show might be a new “normal” in 100 years.

This biker makes his way around the seawater in Mill Valley near Stinson Beach CA. Photo by Yanna B.

The motivation to start talking about hazard mitigation and adaptation is king tide photos of washed out roads, flooded homes, and shrinking beaches. We’ve got a lot to prepare for. Perhaps king tides are nature’s way of giving us a head start.

If you want to be part of the King Tides campaign in your state or province, please visit the following websites to see the schedule of tide events:

Washington King Tides (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/ipa_hightide.htm)

Oregon King Tides (http://www.climateadaptationplanning.net/kingtides/)

California King Tides (http://californiakingtides.org/)

British Columbia King Tides (http://www.livesmartbc.ca/connect/kingtidephotos/)

Australia King Tides (http://www.greencrossaustralia.org/our-work/witness-king-tides-a-community-photography-project.aspx)