NewsTravel & Day Trips

Will San Francisco Be Underwater Due to Climate Change?

Climate change is a global issue, and its implications are becoming increasingly concerning for coastal cities, such as San Francisco.

Will San Francisco be underwater in the future? Let’s explore this topic in-depth, using the latest research and projections.

The Threat of Sea Level Rise

Sea level rise is a primary concern when it comes to climate change’s impacts on coastal cities.

  • Why is the sea level rising?
    • Thermal Expansion: As ocean water warms, it expands—this thermal expansion accounts for about half of the average global sea level rise.
    • Melting Ice: The other major contributor is the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in regions like Greenland and Antarctica.
  • How does this impact San Francisco?
    • San Francisco’s geographic location places it in a vulnerable position for rising sea levels. A significant portion of the city is low-lying and susceptible to flooding.

Here are some of the most (and least) vulnerable areas.

A person sits on the Municipal Pier at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, San Francisco, California, May, 2019.
NeighborhoodAverage Elevation (in feet)
Marina District10 – 20
Mission Bay10 – 15
Embarcadero10 – 15
Ocean Beach10 – 15
Treasure Island15 – 30
Potrero Hill150 – 300
Twin Peaks900 – 925

Projections for San Francisco

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and local researchers provide some projections about the future of sea level rise in San Francisco.

YearPredicted Sea Level Rise (in feet)Source
20400.5 – 1IPCC
20601 – 2IPCC
21001.5 – 3.4Local researchers

These projections are contingent on a variety of factors, including the pace of global warming and the effectiveness of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some worst-case scenario projections are even more extreme, projecting 10-12 feet of sea level rise by 2100. In that case, much of the city would be underwater.

It’s important to note that these worst-case scenario projections assume that no mitigation efforts are taken, that climate change continues to accelerate, etc. The reality will likely be closer to IPCC’s projections of a few feet of sea level rise over the next several decades.

In that case, parts of San Francisco could experience much more frequent flooding and risks from storms, even if they’re not actually inundated or underwater.

Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands and Berkeley Pier visible from across the San Francisco Bay from Berkeley, California on a foggy, hazy day, June 5, 2018.

Impact on Infrastructure

The potential rise in sea levels could have profound effects on San Francisco’s infrastructure.

  • Flooding: Parts of the city, including areas around the Embarcadero and Mission Bay, are expected to face more regular flooding.
  • Infrastructure Damage: Rising sea levels could cause significant damage to roads, buildings, and other infrastructure, leading to costly repairs and reconstruction efforts.
  • Storm Surges: With higher sea levels, storm surges could reach further inland, increasing the risk of flooding during storms.

Adaptive Strategies

The City of San Francisco is not idly waiting for the sea levels to rise. Instead, there are various strategies and measures being employed or planned to mitigate the impact of climate change and sea level rise.

The Port of San Francisco breaks down some of these steps.

  • Sea Walls and Barriers: The city is exploring the possibility of constructing sea walls or other types of barriers to protect against rising water levels.
  • Raised Infrastructure: Some new developments are being built at higher elevations to reduce their risk of flooding. “Retreat” from rising sea levels is one piece of the city’s strategy.
  • Flood Management Programs: The city is working on implementing comprehensive flood management programs, which include everything from improving drainage systems to investing in green infrastructure to absorb stormwater.
View of Pier 39 on a sunny day, with the Blue and Gold Fleet’s Oski ferry at left and other boats and buildings in the background, in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, California, 2005. From the Wendy Morgan Collection.

The Final Verdict

So, will San Francisco be underwater due to climate change? Based on current projections, large areas of the city could indeed face regular flooding and be significantly impacted by rising sea levels by the end of the century if substantial adaptive measures are not implemented.

However, the city is proactively working to mitigate these risks, and the exact outcomes will depend on both these local efforts and broader global action to curb climate change.

It’s unlikely the city will be underwater unless the absolute worst care scenario comes to pass. But action is needed now–both on reducing climate change and adapting to its impacts–to keep the city the City by the Bay safe from more frequent and damaging flooding.

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