King Tide’s Gift: Gentle Awakenings to a Rapidly Changing World

October 24, 2016 | 4:14 pm
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Last week the sea went where it should not be, filling roadways, nudging into homes, and once again obliterating the line between waterfront and water—all while demonstrating where daily tides threaten to be just a few decades from now.

It’s a problem. So it’s with apologies to those harmed by these floods (and they can do harm) that I admit: I’ve grown strangely grateful for king tides.

It’s a phenomenon that arrives in a predictable, moderate, “isn’t that odd” sort of way.  A spectacle that offers us a gentle awakening to the transformative changes to come.

If this is how we on the coasts get accustomed to living in a climate-changed world—literally “getting our feet wet”—I think we can count ourselves lucky. Because there are much harsher ways to wake up to our changing world.

King tides and climate change 

What’s up with these tides?


Encountering King Tide in Boston on Tuesday, October 18, 2016. Photo: Julia Knisel

The tides go up and down every day, but twice each month—with each full and new moon—tides rise higher than usual. They rise higher still a few times each year with the lunar “perigee,” when the moon is closest to the earth and exerts a stronger gravitational pull. These are the King Tides—and they are causing more and more flooding along the US coast.

But why is there just now this sudden uptick in flooding? Tides have been doing this since there was an ocean for the moon to move, of course, but these days the ocean is taking up more space, courtesy of global warming, and the tides have nowhere else to go but onto roads and into communities.

Here are the basics:

  • Global average sea level rose roughly eight inches from 1880 – 2009.
  • The US East Coast and Gulf of Mexico experienced some of the world’s fastest rates of sea level rise in the twentieth century due to local and regional factors.
  • The frequency of tidal flooding has jumped dramatically in many locations in the past several decades, quadrupling in some places since the 1970s.
  • With sea level rise accelerating and projected to rise globally by roughly 6 inches in just the next 15 years and about a foot in 30 years….. you can see where this is going.


Gently shaken on the coast

So this is a thing. And it needs to be treated seriously. King tides and tidal flooding are no longer just a nuisance. As we saw during last fall’s king tides, these floods are now causing pain.

We’re learning of localized damage and disruption, and in some cases, huge outlays for pumps and other measures to control the flooding. And some of us are worrying and wondering when a wave of frequently flooded homeowners will opt to sell, as this SE Florida woman contemplates, and neighborhoods will see property values plummet.

And yet, this is arguably the gentle face of climate change, and these are early days yet.

Jolted awake in the Arctic

This week, I had lunch with a colleague from Alaska. With a “do you hear the words that I’m saying” urgency, she outlined the climate shocks being dealt to the Arctic, and in particular, the effects unfolding in her home state:


January 2016 kicked off a year that has featured the largest monthly temperature anomalies ever recorded. Here Alaska and much of the Arctic are shown running 4 to 13 degrees Celsius above the historic average. Credit: NASA

The situation is stark, and the early changes are swift and stunning.

The Bogus Creek Fire burns Sunday, June 7, 2015, in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska. The 25,260-acre fire was started by lightning on May 31st. Matt Snyder/Alaska Division of Forestry

The Bogus Creek Fire burns Sunday, June 7, 2015, in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska. The 25,260-acre fire was started by lightning on May 31st. Matt Snyder/Alaska Division of Forestry

The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world. Alaska has warmed, over the last 60 years, at rates double that of the lower 48 and winters have seen a 6 degree Fahrenheit increase.

By 2100, says the National Climate Assessment, increases of 4 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit can be expected under a business-as-usual scenario. Given the sensitivity of the Arctic climate, however, some scientists project much higher increases (e.g., an increase of 13 degrees Celsius (40 degrees F) in average November to January temps this century).  And though the rest of us don’t know, we should: what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.

I find myself saying things like “we urgently need to come to terms with the changes we face” so that we can prepare and fight to slow global warming. I believe it, but it does sound feeble and out-of-touch in the wake of conversations like that.

In places like the rapidly warming Arctic, that awareness is being forced. People are being denied an opportunity to grow accustomed to change. They’re instead being thrust into a disorienting climate present that many would think inconceivable—the kind of change one might think possible only decades from now. It can beggar belief, but to live there is to believe it.

One only needs to look to see the climate danger afoot in the world today in places like the Arctic and small island states; at the harm already inflicted in regions like South Asia, which has been devastated by floods, and Southeast Asia, by storms; and, most importantly, at our own agency in what comes next.

Up and at ‘em…

If the king tides give those of us on the coasts of the Lower 48 a chance to get to know our changing climate, under sunny skies, from the safety of our everyday lives, once we see it, what then?

Globally, the Paris Climate Agreement needs our strongest support. As part of this, here in the US, implementation of the Clean Power Plan needs to proceed and succeed.

States and municipalities not yet working toward clean energy systems and climate preparedness need to start.

And out of self-interest, altruism, or the million reasons in between, we all need to become some form of climate activist.

For motivation, you can find a king tide near you next month. Your next best chances to view the “gentle” face of climate change are November 13–17, and December 12–16.