The Bay Area, a hotspot for unicorn startups and buzzing economic activity, is facing high flood risk in the future due to sea level rise. This leaves California officials with no choice but to draft a major defense plan to protect its attractiveness to entrepreneurs and tourists. 

Earth.Org has mapped what severe flooding could look like in the Bay Area by 2100 if no action is taken. 

A study by the US Geological Survey estimates that sea level rise may put up to USD $150 billion worth of property and infrastructure, along with 600 000 coastal residents at risk by 2100. Indeed, the area is a gigantic estuary just above sea level, and a recent paper published in Nature estimates that, under high emissions scenarios, global sea levels could rise by an average 1 to 2 meters by 2100.

8 large neighborhoods plus two airports are built on what used to be wetlands, now filled to accommodate urban expansion. These are the most vulnerable areas to the combined force of sea level rise and storm surges, as demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy in New York City where flooded areas were mostly reclaimed lands. 

How will California defend the Bay? Strategies vary depending on the place: some will be elevated, some will need new levees, and others will be left for the sea to submerge. Building sea walls is a last resort, both because of the environmental impact and the cost. One big issue is that solutions have to be tailored to each city, community, and special district so as to avoid litigation. Despite the will to act, this could delay the area’s action time by years while they wait for legislation to come through. 

Earth.Org has modelled what extreme flooding could look like in the San Francisco Bay by 2100 to illustrate the need for swift action. 

sea level rise by 2100 sanfran

Sea level rise projections by 2100 for two scenarios with the amount of rise in meters indicated (mild = 1m; extreme = 3m). Percentage and total population displacement indicated bottom right.

Sea Level Rise Methodology

Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 2m at the end of this century. However, in order to determine local sea level rise (SLR), one has to take into account local coastal flood levels which could be 2.8m above Mean Higher-High Water (MHHW) at extreme forecasts. These local levels bring variability to the projected SLR from 1m to 6.5m (eg. Rio vs Kolkata).

The SLR scenarios used in this study are based on the forecasts from Climate Central – Coastal Risk Screening Tool  with the following parameters:

Sea level Projection Source:

From two highly cited journals by Kopp et al., estimating SLR mainly due to ocean thermal expansion and ice melt. The mid-range scenario projected 0.5-1.2m of SLR based on different representative concentration pathways (RCP) defined by the IPCC. While the pessimistic scenario added more mechanisms of ice-sheet melting, estimating SLR at 1m-2.5m in 2100, with a projection of 10m SLR at 2300.

Coastal Flooding

More frequent coastal flooding is a direct impact of sea-level rise. Based on the Global tides and surge reanalysis by Muis et al., (2016), it is estimated that the extreme coastal water level could be from 0.2 – 2.8m over the mean level. While in extreme cases like China and the Netherlands it could experience 5-10m of extreme sea levels. Here, the coastal local flood level is added on top of the projected SLR.

Pollution Scenario:

Allows choosing the RCP, the greenhouse gas concentration trajectory defined by the IPCC.  The mild level is based on RCP4.5, of 2°C temperature rise; while the Extreme level is based on RCP 8.5, of 4°C temperature rise.


Applies to the baseline SLR, defined in the “Sea level projection” section, upon which we add flooding. “Mild” refers to the mid-range scenario of 0.5-1.2m, and “extreme” to the pessimistic scenario of 1-2.5m. We used the high-end value of each scenario (mild = 1m; extreme = 2.5m).

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