This winter is predicted to be a banner year for King Tides, a term that refers to the highest tides of the season. The King Tides happen annually, but this year they have taken on an added sense of importance as initiatives around the world are underway to document the effects of extreme tides. The goal is to help people visualize the impact of rising sea levels that will be a certain consequence of climate change over the next few decades, unless steps are taken to mitigate this problem.
King Tides occur when the orbit of the moon is closest to the earth, the earth's orbit is closest to the sun, and the sun, moon, and earth are all in alignment. When this confluence of celestial events happens, the gravitational forces of the sun and the moon reinforce each other and have a strong effect on the tides. The term King Tides originated in Australia and New Zealand, and now has come to be commonly used in the United States and Canada.
The King Tides took place this year on December 12-14, with the highest tides being recorded on Thursday, December 13. I went out that day to photograph the Sausalito waterfront, an area that stands to be impacted severely by rising sea levels. I started off at the foot of Harbor Drive, where a small park juts out into the Bay, between the piers of the Clipper Yacht Harbor. It was not far from here that Otis Redding was sittin' on the dock of the Bay, and if he had been watching these tides roll away, he would have seen an impressive sight. The waters of the Bay flowed up to the level of the pathway, encroaching on the park benches. Pelicans and cormorants looked on in amusement, free to fly away from the watery threat. The yellow flowers of gum plants were barely peeking above the water, looking like lily pads floating on the incoming tide. These plants are one of the prominent features of salt marshes and normally stand two to three feet above the muddy shore.
I continued my exploration in downtown Sausalito, where the waters were lapping up against the seawall that protects Bridgeway. At the southern end of town, the Al Sybrian statue of a sea lion was a good place to visualize the significant impact that rising sea levels could have on our coastal areas. At normal mean tide, the sea lion statue appears to be sitting on the water, while at low tide the pedestal of the statue is visible. At the time of the King Tide, however, all that was visible was the tip of the sea lion's nose, pointed at the sky in a desperate attempt to metaphorically survive the alteration of its habitat.
The following day, I went out to China Camp State Park to take part in a guided hike and a talk about the King Tides. I had heard reports that the entrance to the park on North San Pedro Road had been flooded the day before, so I entered the park from the south, stopping at China Camp Village first. The waters were lapping up against the shore, coming dangerously close to the old wooden buildings of the village. The Sea Breeze, an old dilapidated fishing boat that usually sits up on the beach, was halfway in the water. Just offshore, Rat Rock Island was almost completely inundated, the lone buckeye tree looking forlorn at the top of the rock. A light drizzle was falling, so it felt like water was encroaching our world from all sides.
Further down the road at Turtle Back Hill, I joined the guided hike to learn more about the King Tides. The hike was led by Sarah Ferner, a wetland scientist who is the Education Coordinator for the National Estuarine Research Reserve. She talked about the King Tides, how they are caused by the alignment of the moon, the Earth, and the sun, and how they can reveal the effects of climate change on coastal areas like the shore of San Pablo Bay. We looked out across the marsh as we walked around Turtle Back Hill, observing large flocks of snowy egrets and willets. The birds were congregating at the high water mark of the tide, where they were feeding on plentiful prey. Sarah explained that the King Tides are "hunting tides" that push small marsh creatures up into the shallower waters at the edge of the marsh, creating a veritable buffet for marsh birds.
The tide was coming in rapidly by this time and the meandering sloughs that make their way across the marsh were close to merging completely with the Bay. As we walked around the hill, a gentle chorus of bird song rang out as the rain stopped and a few patches of blue sky appeared above. The Bay formed a glassy surface across the marsh, almost completely covering the pickleweed and gum plant. Jake's Island, which is normally separated from the mainland by a wide muddy patch of marsh, was now truly an island. North San Pedro Road came into view again as we rounded the hill, and we saw the part that was flooded. A few brave souls attempted to drive through the deluge, risking severe saltwater damage to the chassis of their cars.
Sarah talked to us about rising sea levels, sharing some predictions from the National Research Council. By the year 2030, just a generation away, sea levels are predicted to rise anywhere from 2-12 inches. By 2050, the range is up to 5-24 inches. By the end of the century, the rise could be from 16-66 inches, an amount that would inundate much of the coastal Bay Area. We talked about the importance of addressing the issue of climate change and how we as individuals can make a difference. With scientific evidence pointing to human-induced climate change, the reality of this watery future still has not sunken in to our society as a whole.
The King Tides are inspiring a number of activities designed to document with photographs the effects of the extremely high tides on low lying areas. The California King Tides Initiative and the Bay Area King Tide Photo Initiative are among the local photo documenting projects, while others are taking place in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. People are encouraged to send in photos of the King Tides, especially in areas that dramatically show the effects of rising sea levels.
King Tides are a natural phenomenon and have occurred each year for millennia. They are not related to climate change, nor are they a precursor to the Mayan Apocalypse scheduled for later this month. The Geminid meteor showers that coincided with this month's King Tides do not prophesy the end of days, and in spite of high waters, there is no need to build an Ark. On the other hand, the King Tides provide us with an opportunity to see the future and act now to forestall or prevent the worst of what could be coming our way.