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NOAA’s predictions mean more flooding for San Diego in decades to come

People on the shore of Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Calif. Oct. 11, 2021.
Matthew Bowler / KPBS
People on the shore of Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Calif. Oct. 11, 2021.

Sea-level rise will make a big impact by the middle of the century on America’s coastal regions, including in San Diego. That’s what it says in a February 2022 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA predicts ocean levels will rise by 8 inches on the West Coast by 2050. Sea levels will rise even faster on the East Coast — an additional foot by mid-century.

Rising sea levels, the result of global warming, will have a real effect on San Diego’s low-lying areas such as the ones near Mission Bay and San Diego Bay, according to Mark Merrifield, with Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


“These are places where the water is flowing to a low point on land and entering the ocean. These are the most vulnerable locations,” he said. “So around the bay and including the airport. The high waters will not only overwash the infrastructure but, at other times, will also come up through the groundwater. So as the ocean rises the water table rises as well."

Merrifield said San Diego is already subject to “nuisance floods” at high tide. But by 2050 the frequency of those floods is predicted to be much higher.

Coastline erosion now threatens the beaches and bluffs of San Diego’s coastline. That will also increase as sea levels rise.

“As the sea level rises that wave action rises higher and higher up the beach, and higher and higher up the cliff," Merrifield said. "So you are now creating a situation where there’s just more hours of attack per day.”

As time passes the ocean will become a more imposing presence.


The NOAA report predicts sea levels on the West Coast will increase by 1½ feet by the end of the century. Merrifield said if global warming continues at the current pace, ocean levels could be four feet higher by the middle of the next century.

“Then we’re talking about a very different waterfront. Good parts of San Diego bay around the perimeter will be flooded," he said. "The estuaries, the wetlands… the perimeters of those will be much broader."

The future is not certain. But Merrifield said the NOAA report has provided planners with a timeframe that will help them find ways to protect vulnerable coastlines.