12 • 04 • 2017

King Tides: A Window into Future Sea Level Rise

By Stefanie Sekich-Quinn

Talk about a stellar bird’s eye view.  Recently, Surfrider partnered with LightHawk to organize flights along both coasts to capture King Tides—a phenomenon that produces extreme tide conditions.  While King Tides happen on an annual basis, these abnormally high tides provide a sneak-peek into how future sea level rise can impact our coastal communities. 

As Surfrider flew along our coasts, we witnessed firsthand how higher tides pose significant problems for coastal infrastructure.  From Washington to Mexico and from Maine to Florida, we saw thousands of structures that will eventually be exposed to rising seas; prompting the question of how will local communities respond to (or, hopefully, proactively prepare for) sea level rise…? 

In addition to seeing impacts to infrastructure, we noticed that areas with little development were able to better handle the King Tides.  Wide sandy beaches, unencumbered by buildings, shook off the inundation like water on a duck’s back.  In fact, in areas with State Parks and open spaces, the beaches looked somewhat normal, like no King Tide had engulfed the coastline.  Yet just a few miles away, other King Tides seemingly appeared to swallow seawalls and the foundations of buildings.  And finally, we noticed that areas with numerous seawalls experienced more erosion.  Coastal geologists and scientists have proven seawalls block the natural flow of sand; exacerbating erosion and leaving little to no beach. 

We took the opportunity to view King Tides from the air in order to better understand future impacts of sea level rise and to motivate local municipalities to proactively protect our shorelines and coastal communities.  It is imperative that local communities work together to preemptively turn the tide now to avoid the loss of beaches, homes, communities, public access, recreation and ecosystems.  Once these unique and special areas are gone, they’re gone for good.

Witnessing King Tides from above reinforced Surfrider's important work of influencing policy at the national and local levels to improve how our coastlines are managed in light of climate change.  Now, more than ever, it is fundamental that local municipalities work on: strengthening land use planning/zoning, increasing “set-backs” for infrastructure, examining relocation of structures in “harm’s way”, and engaging in dune restoration to support resilient beaches that can withstand rising seas.

Cori Schumacher, a City Councilmember from Carlsbad, CA. joined the southern California flight and as she stated in this article, “we’re working together for the best positive outcome because we can’t stop the ocean.” 

We owe a mountain of gratitude to LightHawk Staff who arranged these flights and to the volunteer pilots who dedicate their time to improving knowledge of pressing environmental problems.

Below are just a few photos we captured during our King Tides flights on both coasts.  To learn more about Surfrider’s climate change work, go here

California Coastline: 

Southern California 

Central California 

Washington State Shorelines 

South Floridia Shorelines 

Maine Coastline

New Jersey Shoreline

New Hampshire Coast