The California Coast: Resilience and Adaptation Planning for Sea Level Rise

Analogies between the built environment and scientific frameworks are abundant. Likening urban systems to ecological ones is perhaps not surprising given society’s dependence on nature for its existence. In one such relatively recent turn in urban thought, the idea of resilience draws from an ecological discourse to support planning efforts that promote stability. In the face of an external threat, resilience is defined as the ability to return to a previous state or to evolve into a new state. How the system that resilience is applied to is defined, where its limits are drawn, who the actors are who fall within that system, and the timeframe in which we are seeking to intervene are all open questions. This project focuses specifically on resilience planning in the face of climate change by identifying the effect of sea level rise on the California coast.

The two primary causes for sea level rise include the melting of ice and thermal expansion. An increase in global mean temperature accelerates the rate of melting for glaciers and polar ice caps beyond what the historic mean rate has been. Snowfall and rainfall in the rest of the globe are sparser, causing an imbalance in precipitation on the planet. This imbalance is reflected in a rapid increase in the ratio of runoff to ocean evaporation, causing a rise in sea levels. Moreover, ice streams through these areas, a result of meltwater from higher altitudes and seawater from below, are more frequent across the ice sheets. These streams, coupled with high temperatures, cause ice sheets to melt from below, with large chunks breaking off and melting more rapidly than if they remained connected to the continental ice sheets. Common policy questions by jurisdictions facing sea level rise involve identifying the appropriate level of protection. Typical adaptation strategies include a hard infrastructure edge against rising sea levels, which has the following negative impacts: it cuts people off from the ocean, reducing access to a social and cultural amenity, and destroys environmental habitats that are unique to land/ocean interactions.


Research Formulation

The California Coastal Commission and the California Natural Resources Agency, two leading institutions in disseminating scientific findings on climate change and the California coast, tend to focus on the precise amount of expected sea level rise along the coast. When identifying locations of intervention, jurisdictions tend to look solely at the effect sea level rise will have on the built and natural environment without differentiating between the different types of buildings, or the different qualities of the natural environment, that will be affected.

This research effort proposes that such differences, particularly in building type, are significant in assessing the effect of sea level rise on the California coast. Specifically, it looks at the effect of sea level rise on industry and infrastructure, from wastewater treatment plants to energy production and distribution. Rather than beginning the study by understanding the impact of sea level rise on densely populated cities, the study takes as its initial point of interest those locations where sea level rise is most pronounced and proceeds by seeking to find how those conditions overlap with the presence of industrial production and/or processing.