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Our New Extreme Weather Reality And How San Diego Is Preparing

October 31, 2012 1:02 p.m.


Peter Bromirski, Associate Research Oceanographer, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Brian Holland, Climate Program Director, International Council for Local Environment Initiatives

Related Story: Our New Extreme Weather Reality And How San Diego Is Preparing


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, October 31st, Halloween. Our top story on Midday Edition following up on an interview we did yesterday about the devastation back east from hurricane sandy. I spoke with Scripps climate scientist and professor emeritus Richard Somerville on whether climate change is becoming evident in super storms like sandy.

(Audio Recording) SOMERVILLE: The metaphor I like to use is the baseball player who takes steroids. He was a good player beforehand. He hit home runs. So you can't point to a single home run he took after getting on drugs and say that was due to the drugs. But you see the answer in the statistics. His home run slugging percentage and batting average go up. So it's something that you see only in the statistics. And we'll know more after we see more hurricanes. But that global warming or man-made climate change contributed to the severity and ferociousness of this storm is very likely. Today, weather events occur in the background stage that's been influenced by climate change.

CAVANAUGH: And yesterday in conversation with reporters about the devastation from hurricane sandy, New York governor Andrew Cuomo said we live in a world now where what we used to call 100 year hurricanes and floods are coming every few years. My guests, Peter Bromirski is associate researcher oceanographer at Scripps.

BROMIRSKI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Brian Holland is climate program director for San Diego with the international council for local environment initiatives. Welcome.

HOLLAND: Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Let me first ask both of you to weigh in on this, do you go with the statement by governor Cuomo about a new climate reality? Peter?

BROMIRSKI: Well, there are certainly indications that climate is changing. The atmosphere warming, and that unusual will produce more intense storms. So we can expect, and there's been several studies that suggest that storm intensity will be increasing even though the number of storms won't be increasing.

CAVANAUGH: And what about you, Brian? A new climate reality for San Diego and the rest of the world.

HOLLAND: I think that's right. The science is very clear about the fact that climate change is occurring, that it's due largely to man-made factors, then it's just a question of what events are we seeing in different regions? More wildfire, more drought, more intense storm, and I think those are only going to become more common, and slowly welcoming the new normal.

CAVANAUGH: Sea level rise is one of the major challenges San Diego faces due to climate change, isn't that right?

BROMIRSKI: Well, it hasn't been a challenge for the last two or 3 decades, but it certainly will be a challenge in the future. We've been lucky and had a period of pretty much stationary sea level since 1980. But there are indications that that situation will change and sea level will start rising along the California coast.

CAVANAUGH: When do models foresee this beginning to happen?

BROMIRSKI: Well, the models don't have the precision yet to make that kind of an estimate. But there are measurements, are different wind patterns across the Pacific basin that suggest that there could be a change in the regime. And that sea levels will once again begin rising along the California coast.

CAVANAUGH: How is the rise of sea level monitored not only here in San Diego but around the world?

BROMIRSKI: Well, there's tide gauge stations along the coast. And fortunately, want satellite al-Tim tree measurements that have begun since around 1992 have allowed us to look at broadscale patterns of sea level across the Pacific basin. And so that's a very useful tool that is becoming more informative about how sea levels are changing.

CAVANAUGH: What you said before is really intriguing because I have heard that sea level rising is inyou know dating some island nations around the world. Why have we not seen that here? Why is it sort of not evenly spaced out in all coastal regions

BROMIRSKI: Well, because sea level depends on broad scale ocean circulation patterns, as well as broad scale wind patterns and regional winds. So currently since about 1992, that is, sea levels in the western tropical Pacific have been rising at three times the global rate. And so they're going up much faster along the -- in the western Pacific than they are along the eastern Pacific where we are. Eventually sea level rise along the California coast will probably start approaching the global sea level rise rate. And when that occurs, we'll start seeing more appreciable changes.

CAVANAUGH: Do weather patterns such as El NiÒo play into sea level rise?

BROMIRSKI: They produce short-term fluctuations of higher sea levels along the coast. And they're a signature factor when it comes to storm impacts. Usually associated with El NiÒos are stronger storms as well.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Could there be any other ocean-related weather pattern changes we could expect to see here in San Diego? I'm thinking more storms, weather systems perhaps moving in from the south, more northerly toward San Diego?

BROMIRSKI: Well, due to global warming, the storms are expected to intensify. So we can expect during El NiÒos, perhaps stronger storms as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I've been speaking with Peter bromerski with Scripps, thank you so much for joining us.

BROMIRSKI: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Let me move to Brian Holland. And your group helped issue a sea level rise adaptation strategy for San Diego bay. And since Peter was rather hesitant to give us any kind of a timeframe on this, I know that the study itself did have some time predictions. So tell us what you're thinking that we may see in the coming decades.

HOLLAND: Yes, so our study looked out to 2050 and 2,100. And in the near term, Peter is right, we're not sure when west coast sea level is going to pick up again. In the longer term, when you look to mid-century and end of century, it starts to corespond with more global sea level rise. There's always uncertainty about this, how the ocean responds to the climate and how quickly. So we looked at ranges and scenarios. Of in the 2050 timeframe, our scenario was about 18 inches of sea level rise, so about 1.5 feet, and we 2100, we looked at 25 feet.

CAVANAUGH: That's a big change.

HOLLAND: Absolutely. The rate is expected to increase because the rate of greenhouse emissions has changed. In the near term, it's not going to be nearly as significant as late century.

CAVANAUGH: In this strategy, this project that you undertook and measured out all of the bay area and the coastal area of San Diego, what are some of the areas that you identified as most vulnerable to sea rise?

HOLLAND: Obviously it's the low-lying areas that are the most vulnerable. And a lot of the bay was built on fill and built in locations that used to be wetlands and marsh lands, and that sort of thing. The harbor drive area and the airport are in low-lying areas. Around the Convention Center is fairly low-lying, then south bay, there's concern about the paradise creek area in national city, Sweetwater marsh in Chula Vista. And then the Glorietta bay portion of Coronado is vulnerable.

CAVANAUGH: And what strategies with various communities use to try to counteract this problem? If the sea is rising, it's rising!

HOLLAND: That's right, well, in the near term, this is more a problem of storm events. So we've got El NiÒo, we've got storage surge from storms, times that have much higher tides, and then you've got big waves. When all these factors come together at the same time, and then you add in a foot, say, of sea level rise, those storms become, you know, more destructive. And so in the near term, the next few decades, we're looking at more frequent flood events, and when flooding happens, it becomes maybe more intensive. So to respond to that, I think it's a matter of, you know, building in some adaptability to the infrastructure, and the development that we're undertaking now.


HOLLAND: So it could just be an issue of raising a pump station a few feet higher. Or when you're doing a new development, making sure that your building materials are sort of weather-proofed. Over the longer term: The response has to be more aggressive.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Are you recommending like sea levels and burms and things like that?

HOLLAND: Yeah, so generally response to flooding, hard measures or soft measures. Hard measures are sea levels and things, and the soft measures can be things like beach replenishment, wetlands restoration. So it's likely to be a mix of those things.

CAVANAUGH: Your group helped issue a sea level rise adaptation strategy for San Diego bay. Just to ask you, you told us that we have some time to prepare, and you told us various ways we could prepare. Are any of those actions that you recommended in this project, are they being undertaken at this time?

HOLLAND: Well, it is very important that we start now. While the impacts are going to take time to materialize, we're building things now that have lifespans of 40, 50, 60 years. So the things that we're designing and building are going to be vulnerable in that timeframe. So it's important that we start doing it now. And the San Diego region has emerged as a leader on the national scale in building resilience to climate change. There has been a lot of activity and partnership between nonprofits like us, between the philanthropic communities. And then between local governments, state agencies and federal agencies. So there's been a lot of collaboration. And that's how the San Diego bay strategy came about. So we identified a lot of recommendations in there, and the cities now are taking some of those forward.

CAVANAUGH: Why should people who don't live near the coast care about sea level rise?

HOLLAND: Well, of course folks that live in coastal area, they're concerned about their property.


HOLLAND: About getting around in their neighborhoods. But this issue has broad implications for the whole region. Our economy, for example, the fact that tourism and the military are really two of the biggest sectors of the economy, they are very independent on the coast. So to protect our coastal assets, make sure that we can be one of the big evaluate centers of tourism in the country, that the Navy still has a strong base here, it's going to affect the whole regional economy. And it affects public access and recreation, and the ability of people to benefit from the beautiful environment we live in.

CAVANAUGH: And things like power stations and waste water treatment facilities and things like that, if the coast becomes more inundated or if there are breaches because storms welcome more severe and there's sea level rise, are they actually -- it would seem like the larger community would be threatened by that.

HOLLAND: That's right. Some of the infrastructure that may be vulnerable over time is regional. So if you look at waste water for example, the biggest pump stations in the region are located right around bait in low-lying areas. They have to be there to pump the waste water up to the treatment plant in Point Loma. If those go down, it has trickle-down effects on the whole region. The transportation facilities, everyone depends on Lindbergh field, it's our only airport, it's got one runway, it's vulnerable. So that's going to affect people's quality of life and their ability to get around.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know your group is involved in efforts to get communities across the nation prepared for all sorts of weather extremes. What other weather extremes might San Diego find itself vulnerable to if indeed we are in a new climate reality? I'm thinking drought and extreme wildfires. Is that what we should look into as well?

HOLLAND: Yeah, so the region is out ahead on this with regards to the research that it's done as well. So the San Diego foundation funded something called the focus 2050 study where they worked with researchers at UCSD and Scripps and SDSU to look out to 2050 and see what are the biggest risks from all types of extreme weather related to climate change? It's not just sea level rise. I think there's an increasing property of more wildfire, more frequent wildfire, it's going to get hotter so we're likely to see more heat waves and longer heat waves. And there's a good possibility of more periods of drought. So not just drought in the San Diego region, but we're very reliant on water from the Sierras, from the Colorado river basin, places that are also going to be experiencing more drought.

CAVANAUGH: You seem very optimistic though that there are things we can do to prepare for all of these eventualities.

HOLLAND: Yeah, you know, some of them are going to entail a lot more cost. But other things have cobenefits for public health, for green space, and for quality of life. And there are things that we can do that don't entail a lot of additional costs. If you think about water, we've always recognized the need to conserve more water, and it's a cost savings as well.

BROMIRSKI: So you're saying it's a win-win if we actually do put these measures into place?

HOLLAND: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: I would love if you would come back and talk more with you, Brian.

HOLLAND: My pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Climate program director for the international council for local environment initiatives.