Photos show what Bay Area sea levels may look like by 2050


Water inundated low-lying areas around San Francisco Bay last weekend, as the Northern California region saw some of the highest tides of the year. 

Experts say the king tides help us understand what the impacts of future sea level rise will be, and the photos above and below taken in Mill Valley and Sausalito show roadways and bike paths entirely underwater and water encroaching on buildings.

“When you see a flooded street or park, you can easily picture what it will be like when the water is at least that high every single day rather than just during these few days in the winter,” Annie Frankel, manager of the California King Tides Project at the California Coastal Commission, wrote in an email. “It’s a much more visceral experience to see your favorite beach or your route to work under water than it is to look at a graph of projected sea level rise.”

Reed Freidinger walks with his dog along a flooded Sausalito/Mill Valley bike path during the "King Tide" in Mill Valley, California on January 3, 2022. - "King Tides" occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems.

Reed Freidinger walks with his dog along a flooded Sausalito/Mill Valley bike path during the “King Tide” in Mill Valley, California on January 3, 2022. – “King Tides” occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems.


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

An aerial picture taken on January 3, 2022, shows a vehicle drives along a road flooded with ocean water during the "King Tide" in Mill Valley, California. - "King Tides" occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 

An aerial picture taken on January 3, 2022, shows a vehicle drives along a road flooded with ocean water during the “King Tide” in Mill Valley, California. – “King Tides” occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

An aerial picture taken on January 3, 2022, shows an intersection completely flooded with ocean water during the "King Tide" in Mill Valley, California. - "King Tides" occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 

An aerial picture taken on January 3, 2022, shows an intersection completely flooded with ocean water during the “King Tide” in Mill Valley, California. – “King Tides” occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

A man takes a photo of the flooded Sausalito/Mill Valley bike path during the "King Tide" in Mill Valley, California on January 3, 2022. - "King Tides" occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 

A man takes a photo of the flooded Sausalito/Mill Valley bike path during the “King Tide” in Mill Valley, California on January 3, 2022. – “King Tides” occur when the Earth, moon, and sun align in orbit to produce unusually high water levels and can cause local tidal flooding. Over time, sea level rise is raising the height of tidal systems. 


Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Photos show coastal flooding from the king tide on Jan. 3. (Getty Images / Josh Edelson)


The astronomical tides, or king tides, usually occur in December and January, when the sun and moon reach their closest points to Earth, aligning the celestial bodies like a perfect cue shot to create maximum gravitation pull. 

King tides are 1 to 2 feet higher than the average tide throughout the year, and this is the amount of sea level rise the California Ocean Protection Council’s sea level rise guidance says the state will see by 2050 based on current fossil fuel emissions. The council was formed under the California Ocean Protection Act that was signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 with the intent of maintaining healthy, resilient and productive ocean and coastal ecosystems.

“It is reasonable to assume these tides may become a daily occurrence around mid-century,” Dan Hossfeld, environmental scientist for the Adapting to Rising Tides program at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, wrote in an email. “King tides also show us that in addition to the permanent impacts of sea level rise, temporary events like rainfall, storm surges, and groundwater rise may create compounding impacts much sooner than are anticipated from just sea level rise alone.”

An aerial picture taken on Jan. 3, 2022, shows a man riding his bike along a flooded Sausalito-Mill Valley bike path during the king tide in California.

An aerial picture taken on Jan. 3, 2022, shows a man riding his bike along a flooded Sausalito-Mill Valley bike path during the king tide in California.

Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Hossfield said there’s an assumption that sea level rise will only affect those who live or work on the immediate shoreline or coast, but projects such as Adapting to Rising Tides Bay Area and UC Berkeley’s RISER SF Bay delve into the impacts that sea level rise may bring to our shoreline and inland communities, natural lands, transportation networks and even housing goals without planning and immediate intervention.

The rising tides report identified hot spots that would be impacted by a foot of sea level rise and found 3,750 households in socially vulnerable communities could be flooded, one-third of which are in or near contaminated sites, further complicating protection and remediation, Hossfield said.

“Some specific areas that … could experience a concentration of these consequences from one foot if sea level rise without adaptive measures include San Rafael, Richmond, Corte Madera/Larkspur, and Martinez,” he wrote in an email.



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