When a portion of the street near Midway Drive and Barnett Avenue in the Midway district flooded at the end of November, San Diego police moved quickly to rule out the usual flooding suspect: a broken water main.

The flooding, police said, was the result of a high ocean tide surging into the storm drain system.

On the morning of Dec. 23, the tide flowed over the beach at La Jolla shores, crested the seawall and flooded the boardwalk and parking lot. The next day, waves created by the incoming king tide badly damaged the famous surfer shack at Windansea Beach.

They are so-called “king tides,” the highest tides of the year. They’re a predictable phenomenon that typically happens throughout the November-February winter season; the next such tide is expected to arrive the week of Jan. 21.

But the water is reaching farther into San Diego than ever before. In late November, the swells reached historic heights.

Local scientists say the king tides are getting more severe and causing flooding more often. It could be a harbinger of a much larger problem: rising sea levels due to climate change.

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On their website, the California Ocean Protection Council reported that the tide stations monitored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including those off of San Diego, recorded the highest sea levels ever on Nov. 25. The information gathered by the local tide stations cataloged sea levels up to half a foot higher than predicted. Combined with the El Nino and the warm oceanic conditions, these record-breaking water levels resulted in the abnormally large king tide and the Midway district flooding.

King tides happen naturally and have been a consistent annual event throughout San Diego’s history. Tidal forces typically push an inch or so of water up a storm drain or over a barrier to flood streets and parking lots. Once the tide goes back out, the water recedes, causing little damage.  

But experts say it’s getting worse.

“California broke a record late last month: sea levels at several tide stations in southern California reached higher elevations than ever measured before, including during major storms,” Abe Doherty, California’s climate change policy adviser, wrote in a memo about these findings published last month by the OPC. “Water levels were higher than the “King Tides” that were predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, due to the ongoing El Niño, warm ocean temperatures and a minor storm.”

Several related factors are contributing to the rise: Melting polar ice caps are raising the volume of water in the world’s oceans; a large and persistent patch of abnormally-warm surface water in the Pacific off the West Coast known as “the Blob” which is increasing the temperature and activity of the ocean surface; and most immediately, this winter’s large El Niño system, an irregular atmospheric event in the Pacific Ocean that affects barometric pressure and impacts seasonal weather systems. NASA are already calling this season’s El Nino “a monster.”

It’s having an effect on the local coastline. “Sea levels along the California coast have quite consistently been running several inches in excess of astronomical tide prediction,” said Dan Cayan, a climatologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. “During the king tide late last month, La Jolla and other California coastal tide gage stations experienced record high levels. Fortunately, the minor storm was void of big waves.”

During tidal flooding, it’s the larger and more powerful waves created by storm surges which cause most structural damage. Higher tide levels give these waves greater access to areas inland.

Waves off San Diego’s beaches are already stronger in the winter than in the summer because of heavier winds and barometric pressure changes of seasonal storms. Combine those factors with the additional pressure changes of the El Niño system and the increasing volume of seawater, and you have a perfect formula for flooding. Similar circumstances in the winter of 1983 resulted in historic flooding in San Diego and other areas of the state, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The recent stronger-than-average king tides and accompanying flooding serve as a sign of  the impact sea level rise and future El Niños might have on the San Diego coastline. “It is highly likely that global climate will warm, and in response, coastal flooding will increase in frequency and intensity over the next several decades,” said Cayan.

And even though El Niño is a short-term event, local tide surges could continue after it’s over, Doherty believes.

“Combining El Niño and the Blob, sea level anomalies seem likely to reach average levels of 1 foot this early winter and continue until Spring 2016, lower in the Summer 2016 and rise again temporarily during Fall 2016,” Doherty wrote in another memo (emphasis his). “The anomalous sea levels that California is experiencing this fall and that will likely be sustained through spring are approaching longer period increased levels that are projected under climate change for mid-century.”      

Exactly how severe those changes will be remains unclear – there’s not much data on past events. While the NOAA tide stations have been recording sea level fluctuations off of San Diego since 1906, the record on the location and strength of tidal flooding incidents is sporadic at best. Oceanographers at Scripps say they’re working to correct this.

The Coastal Data Information Program at Scripps is building an online database and digital map documenting tidal flooding. One of the project’s goals involves matching photographs of flooding in early 20th century San Diego with wave and tide conditions recorded in newspapers, and other sources.

Several environmental groups have also collaborated to create the California King Tides Project, a “citizen scientist”-based program dedicated to collecting photo data on king tides along the state’s coastline. Even with an only partially complete collection of data, the consensus of expert researchers and environmental organizations contacted for this story is we will face severe impacts in coastal areas.

“In my opinion, our SoCal beaches are in for a world of hurt over the next decades,” said Robert Guza, a Scripps professor of oceanography. “It’s a matter of when, not if. An El Niño temporarily raises sea level by roughly the equivalent of 25 years of normal sea level rise. So this year is an interesting glimpse into the near future.”

Unfortunately, solutions to future flooding are equally ambiguous. Lower-lying areas such as La Jolla, Mission Beach and Imperial Beach remain vulnerable. Local coastal marshes and sand barriers on the beaches help absorb the impact of tidal rises and storm surges, but they’ve been diminished by natural forces and human development.

Artificial barriers such as seawalls and storm drains can help mitigate the damage from flooding, but they’re already failing to restrain the higher tides, and the city of San Diego hasn’t been in much of a rush to prevent El Niño flooding.

King tides and the flooding they cause demonstrate how rising sea levels affect San Diego. While it’s unclear as to whether the city faces sudden, destructive inundations or a slow tidal creep that gradually consumes the current sea level area of the coastline, it’s a scientific certainty that this current winter’s rise will be the new normal within a few decades. If a more permanent solution isn’t found, San Diego’s scenic beaches may become a thing of the past.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, Science/Environment

    Written by Matthew Baldwin

    Matt Baldwin is a freelance writer and photographer with a focus on human interest and environmental issues. Follow him on Twitter @thisbrokenwheel, drop him a line at thisbrokenwheel@gmail.com and view a selection of his photography on Flickr.

    William Charles
    William Charles

    This happens every 20-30 years in San Diego. The Global Warming-sky-is-falling people simply have short memories. Waves punched through the window in the Marine Room in La Jolla in the 1982-83 storms. It will happen again... totally normal

    Matthew Baldwin
    Matthew Baldwin

    @William Charles Mr Charles,

    In preparation for this article, I read through about 300 pages of scientific data from multiple sources, including two federal agencies (NASA and the NOAA). I spoke to multiple experts, many of whom I omitted from this piece solely because their contributions were ultimately redundant.  On the VOSD podcast, Scott Lewis and Andy Keatts go deeper with one of my sources. You might consider giving that a listen.

    As I linked to within the piece, the NOAA has an online tool that allows users to chart and interact with the data gathered from tide stations along both coasts of the USA and the Caribbean. All of the recorded information is publicly available. Even to a layperson such as myself, it's very obvious that sea levels are rising over time, and that they aren't receding. That tool is here, if you'd like to try it for yourself: https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/stations.html?type=Water+Levels

    As I reported, the November king tide broke the previous high tide record by almost a foot; December's came very close to breaking that, and January's will likely be comparable. When high tides occur is predictable, and not influenced by human behavior. How hey they will be, however, is no longer within our ability to accurately predict.

    During the coarse of my investigation, I also when looking for alternate, credible, theories as to why this this happening, and I wasn't able to find a single one. If you have one, I'd be curious to hear it. 

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Thanks for a timely and educational report. 

    City leaders need to look outside of the region for ideas on managing inevitable coastal flooding. There are other communities dealing with this, and their experience could be helpful. 

    Here is one report from across the country that describes how Miami's property values are being impacted, and how residents are in a certain level of denial, or at least, misunderstanding about the source of the water in their front yards, parking lots etc.:


    One suggestion for our water-starved city: implement programs and infrastructure to capture/retain stormwater runoff, instead of directing it to the coast and flooding low-lying communities as the tides push in. 

    I'd rather see a billion dollars put into this local water resource vs. the "PureWater" effort to treat imported water for reclamation, after paying to have it pumped here from the Colorado River or northern delta. What happens when those far-off sources are not available?

    In this regard, Los Angeles is far ahead of us, thanks to an organization called TreePeople. They have developed a comprehensive stormwater plan in partnership with the city and other organizations. 

    More information is here:

    https://www.treepeople.org/sites/default/files/pdf/publications/TreePeople - Rainwater_as_a_Resource.pdf

    And also here: http://www.aridlid.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/deGuzman.pdf

    And here: https://www.treepeople.org/sites/default/files/pdf/publications/SCMP General Public Mtg No 3.pdf

    Finally, the new Climate Action Plan needs to include some component to respond to these tidal changes, in addition to actions to prevent more changes in the not-so distant future.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Use to be more sand as a buffer along the coast. The erosion over the decades has reduced or removed this buffer.

    There is more to this than "climate change"

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Giffin: Agree, but that is a different circumstance than described here. The problem in some of these bluff areas is that there is indeed less sand (due to armoring, home protection, and other reasons). However, La Jolla Shores is not in that circumstance (i.e. no bluffs). I would note also that the article mentions that the shack at Wind an Sea was damaged, which doesn't mean much. It was damaged/destroyed in 82-83 and I think in 97-98. Winter ended and they rebuilt it. In fact, I intervened to ensure that they didn't have to get a building permit. Pretty funny actually. 

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Giffin: Having worked as a lifeguard at La Jolla Shores during the 82-83 El Nino and overseeing all the City of SD beaches during the 97-98 El Nino, I can advise that the sand levels were much lower in those years than they are presently. La Jolla Shores went down to cobbles for a significant part of the earlier El Nino and thereafter. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach had to be replenished and that replenished sand has mostly stayed up to now. Oddly enough, as the sand went down at Mission Beach, for example, there was less flooding of the boardwalk because the incoming waves hit the seawall, whereas when the sand levels were higher, it was something of a ramp for the incoming surf.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster 

    Coastline has changed. Was up at beacons in Leucadia a few weeks back where I surfed in the 60-70s. bluff goes right to the parking areas now. same thing with cardiff and seaside. The ocean erodes the coast over time.

    Matthew Baldwin
    Matthew Baldwin

    @Mark Giffin @Chris Brewster 

    Mr. Giffin: You're right, coastal erosion is a natural, and normally gradual process. But rising sea levels means higher, stronger tides and wave activity, which in turn means heavier, faster erosion of the beaches and the bluffs. It's not an either/or relationship, it's multiple symptoms of the same disease.  

    lorisaldana subscriber

    @Chris Brewster I was a carpenter during the 82-83 El Niño, building the Pacific Beach post office on the site of the old "Roxy" theatre. 

    When those massive storms flooded the job site, I still had to report to work to check in. I then drove 2 blocks to sit in my car and watch the Crystal Pier get battered- it lost a lot of timber out of the distal end that year. Seeing waves crest over the end of the pier was an image I'll never forget.

    That wasn't the only old pier damaged in So Cal that day. As the NYTimes reported: (http://www.nytimes.com/1983/01/29/us/california-coast-hit-by-4th-storm-amid-a-clean-up.html

    "Three historic piers suffered heavy damage Thursday from pounding surf and winds. A 100-foot section from the end of the Santa Monica Municipal Pier crumbled into the ocean. Santa Monica officials announced they would press ahead with a planned $1.7 million restoration project.

    "In San Diego, about 150 feet from the 1,000-foot Crystal Pier were washed away, and 200 feet collapsed in the middle of the Seal Beach pier in the northern part of Orange County."

    So hold on kids: we ain't seen nothin' yet.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    I had just arrived in San Diego in December 1982 and was sleeping on my friends' floor in the See the Sea condos. I was awakened in the early AM and didn't know what by... until I went outside! What a welcome El Nino gave me that winter!

    Cornelius Ogunsalu
    Cornelius Ogunsalu

    @Kathy S  Was this yesterday? The Amtrak trains were stopped and delayed because tracks were buried under water yesterday. Left LA at 3:00 pm and got to San Diego at about 8:15 pm last night. We just sat still at Carlsbad Poinsettia Station for over one and a half hours and then slowly proceeded into San Diego.

    Cornelius Ogunsalu
    Cornelius Ogunsalu

    @Kathy S @Cornelius Ogunsalu  Mayor Faulconer, whatcha gonna do about [properly] housing San Diego's homeless men and women? Money that has been wasted on your various gimmicks could have been put to better use! Hey, here is an idea . . . build a beautiful stadium for the homeless men and women of San Diego! That would be money well spent and a viable gimmick!

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    That video is breathtaking for anyone who is familiar with that area! Stunning! That can be a difficult area during commuter hours in the best of conditions....Was talking with a neighbor yesterday (Thursday) who was held up leaving Sorrento Valley from work that day. She had to sit in her car for hours, until about 8 p.m., before she could edge her way out in her, thankfully, high clearance vehicle.