Sea Level Rise Seen with New Eyes: the OWLs of San Mateo

On Aug. 4, 2016, the climate change communication NGO Climate Access launched a new project in San Mateo, California, on the San Francisco Bay, called Look Ahead - San Mateo. The project involves an installation in a popular bay-side park, Coyote Point, to help people visualize future sea levels and new approaches for adapting the shoreline.

California Bay Area county map. © Creative Commons.

California Bay Area county map. © Creative Commons.

The project uses a new technology called an OWL® that was piloted by Climate Access for sea level rise education last year in Mill Valley, Marin County, California (read a 4-page brief about that project). The OWL® was created by Owlized, a San Leandro-based tech start-up. The OWL, as described by its creator, is “a public, outdoor virtual reality viewer that shows users the future or history of a place.” An aside for grammar nerds: the word OWL is capitalized not because it is an acronym, but because using all-caps is “the easiest way to differentiate the (mouthful of) digital public information kiosk from our feathered friends,” as clarified by Nate Kauffman at Owlized.

An OWL looks like the coin-operated viewfinder you sometimes find on scenic shorelines, but operates by the push of a button on the side of the viewer and costs the visitor nothing.

A young girl and her family use the OWL viewer. Photo: Sara S. Moore.

A young girl and her family use the OWL viewer. Photo: Sara S. Moore.

Public installations of OWLs include one at adult height and one at child or wheelchair-user height, in compliance with accessibility laws. Besides showing a 360-degree view of the landscape around the installation site under different scenarios of sea level rise and adaptation, it can collect input from visitors through a simple digital interface guided by an audio script. In Marin over 3,700 visitors gave input on different approaches to shoreline adaptation through the OWLs between June and September 2015. The Look Ahead - San Mateo organizers aim to boost participation by hosting weekend events with local community-based organizations at the OWL site over the five-month duration of the installation.

San Mateo is a place where residents should be looking ahead at sea level rise. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, of all California counties San Mateo is most vulnerable to sea level rise. That assertion is predicated on the presumption of 1.0 to 1.4 meters (3 ¼ to 4 ½ feet) of sea level rise along the California coast by the year 2100. It’s worth noting that those numbers might be understating the urgency of the situation. That Pacific Institute study was part of California’s Third Climate Assessment, which was delayed in its publication (something known to the author because of her own contribution to the Third Climate Assessment), so the climate scenarios for the report were actually run in 2009. Additionally, a footnote on those 2009 projections cautions that “most climate models fail to include ice‐melt contributions from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and as a result, the potential increase in mean sea level may be much higher” (p. 1).

Aerial view of the port of Redwood City in San Mateo County, California, USA. © Creative Commons.

Aerial view of the port of Redwood City in San Mateo County, California, USA. © Creative Commons.

Now, refinements in sea level rise projections indicate that sea level is rising faster than previously thought (see the Aug. 10, 2016, Washington Post article “Seas aren’t just rising, scientists say — it’s worse than that. They’re speeding up.”). Meanwhile, the launch press release for Look Ahead - San Mateo cites a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projection of 3 feet of rise by 2100: a number more conservative than the Pacific Institute’s low-end projection from seven years ago. Across the SF Bay from the OWLs, three runways at Oakland International Airport are already closed for some high tides (Janin & Mandia [2012], Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact). San Francisco International, within sight of the OWLs, is sketching out plans for floating runways, seawalls, and levees.

While communicating about sea level rise to San-Mateans is an urgent matter, using innovative technology to communicate about climate change has its trade-offs. While the OWLs do attract visitors—there was a steady stream of passersby lining up at the OWLs on the launch day—the OWLs are costly and breakable. On the launch day one of the two OWLs was not turned on (electrical connection issues), and a week after the launch both OWLs had to be removed for maintenance, returning a few days later.

The OWL installations are being backed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region IX office through education funds made available after the recent release of updated flood maps. The Marin installation was funded with a 150,000 USD FEMA grant that ran the OWLs from May 2015 to September 2015 (only collecting useable survey data for four of those months). The current installation is supported with a 200,000 USD grant, which will run the OWLs from August 2016 to December 2016. Unfortunately, neither Marin nor San Mateo could afford to purchase and maintain the OWLs on a permanent basis.

There is also the practical problem of installing the OWLs in flood-prone areas. The installation in Marin was on the bayside coast near a hiking/biking trail that is already known to go underwater during some King Tides, putting the electrically powered OWLs at risk of damage: this new installation is on higher ground. Also, reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of the project, the San Mateo OWLs are solar-powered. Another lesson from the Marin pilot was that some people didn’t visit the OWLs because they appeared to cost money (resembling coin-operated viewfinders): a sentence about the viewers being free of cost was added to the signage at the San Mateo coast.

In January the OWLs will be removed and re-installed in San Francisco for a third iteration of the experiment.

Full disclosure: the author is volunteering for the Look Ahead - San Mateo County project doing local social media support. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the partners or funders of the project (Climate Access, San Mateo County, Owlized, Dr. Susanne Moser, Antioch University, Nutter Consulting, the California Coastal Conservancy, or FEMA Region IX).

Learn more about the OWL installations and other sea level rise adaptation work ongoing in San Mateo and Marin counties:

About the Author

Sara S. Moore is a climate change adaptation researcher based in Oakland, California. She worked on the Sonoma County Adaptation Strategy (2015) as part of its Climate Action 2020 plan. She wrote a white paper on the Marin case study in scenario planning for the California Climate Vulnerability Assessment (Moore, Zavaleta, Shaw, 2012) and a guidance on implementing scenario planning for natural resource managers for the California Coastal Conservancy and Point Blue Conservation Science (Moore, Seavy, Gerhart, 2013). She holds a Master of Public Policy degree and an MA in International and Area Studies from UC Berkeley.