The Elk River spit during last week's king tides.
For three days last week, Humboldt Bay was filled to the brim — and then some — by 8-and-a-half-foot king tides. Typical high tides in our section of the coast run 6 to 7 feet. The extra foot or two of water backed up the many sloughs that run into Humboldt Bay, changing pasturelands into marshes and, seen from the air, gave the South Bay and the Arcata Bottoms a surrealistic look.
"How can anybody possibly farm these lands?" wondered pilot Rick Utermoehlen, who operated the little Lighthawk aircraft that the Surfrider Foundation's Jennifer Savage had arranged to tour her and two local reporters over the flooded coastline.
We explained to him that it doesn't usually look like that, but then again, that may become the new normal.
Even before the tide rolled in, soils had already been saturated and creeks filled by several days of rain. King tides, as explained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are normal occurrences, happening "when the orbits and alignment of the Earth, moon, and sun combine to produce the greatest tidal effects of the year." They occur once or twice a year, usually in the winter, when everything is already waterlogged.
"King tides preview how sea level rise will affect coastal places. As time goes by, the water level reached now during a king tide will be the water level reached at high tide on an average day," states the EPA.
From the plane you could see the water perilously close to the Eureka wastewater treatment plant, and to the town of King Salmon. The wildlife refuge near Loleta was completely submerged. Fence posts stuck incongruously up from the bay.
All this happened with just with a temporary 1-foot increase in sea level. The ocean, however, is predicted to keep on rising beyond that point — and it seems to be happening faster than anyone had thought only a few years ago. Earlier predictions of a 2-foot rise by 2100 now seem overly conservative to many scientists.
"What's going to happen to the Eureka waterfront?" asked Savage. "What's going to happen to our tourist industry when our beaches become inaccessible?"
These are good questions. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have much in the way of answers.