Travel & Day Trips

Is San Francisco Below Sea Level? The Scientific Truth

San Francisco, known for its iconic Golden Gate Bridge, vibrant culture, and tech scene, has been the topic of various discussions and debates.

One question that often arises is whether San Francisco is situated below sea level. In this blog post, we will explore the topography of San Francisco and dispel any misconceptions.

San Francisco’s Topography: A City of Hills

San Francisco is famed for its diverse landscape, which includes multiple hills that give the city its unique charm. The city is built on 43 hills, some of the most famous ones being Nob Hill, Russian Hill, and Telegraph Hill.

With this information, it becomes clear that San Francisco is not below sea level. In fact, the city’s average elevation is approximately 52 feet (16 meters) above sea level.

Sea Level Concerns: Climate Change and Rising Waters

Despite not being below sea level, San Francisco still faces significant challenges due to the effects of climate change. Sea levels have been steadily rising due to the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, and the expansion of seawater as it warms.

These factors have led to a global mean sea level rise of approximately 3.3 millimeters per year between 1993 and 2021.

For coastal cities like San Francisco, this presents a serious threat. Low-lying areas, such as the Embarcadero and Treasure Island, are particularly vulnerable to flooding and inundation.

The city has undertaken several initiatives to address the risk of sea-level rise, such as the development of the San Francisco Sea Level Rise Action Plan and the Ocean Beach Master Plan.

Myths and Misconceptions

There is a common misconception that San Francisco is below sea level, largely due to comparisons with other cities such as New Orleans, which is indeed below sea level.

This misconception can be attributed to the city’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, as well as the challenges it faces due to rising sea levels. However, as we’ve established, San Francisco’s hilly terrain and average elevation make it clear that the city is not below sea level.


In conclusion, San Francisco is not below sea level. While the city is surrounded by water and faces the challenge of rising sea levels due to climate change, it is built on a series of hills with an average elevation of 52 feet (16 meters) above sea level.

Misconceptions about the city’s elevation can be attributed to its coastal location and the sea-level rise threats it faces. It is crucial for San Francisco, like other coastal cities, to continue implementing strategies to mitigate the risks of climate change and protect its unique landscape and infrastructure.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

Leave a Reply

Back to top button