A Troubled Future for Golden Gate?

 
A group of people walk on the pathway underneath tall redwoods.
If summer fog decreases due to climate change, the majestic, centuries-old redwood trees at Muir Woods will be devastated.

NPS photo

Golden Gate as Sentinel of Global Change


Imagine that you have been transported 100 years in the future. Look around. What do you see?

The diverse and sensitive plants and animals adapted to the coastal environment at Golden Gate act as a sentinel of global change. The ocean regulates the earth's temperatures and moves heat around the planet, much like your heart circulates blood in your body. Today, the ocean absorbs over 90% of the added atmospheric heat associated with fossil fuel emissions. This warming affects the ocean's ability to stabilize the climate. Changing circulation patterns alter the amount of heat and moisture pumped through the ocean-atmosphere system affecting both coastal and inland areas in different ways.

Golden Gate and the Bay Area are known for having many micro-climates and species with limited ranges. Rapidly changing climate patterns are damaging rare species that exist no place else. Some may not be able to adapt fast enough for the changing climate. Sea level is rising and the coast is eroding. In addition, the high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is disolving in the oceans, making them more acidic, and affecting marine life critical to the coastal food chain.

Here are the most likely changes that Golden Gate will experience in the coming decades:

 

Specific Impacts

  • Atmospheric Rivers - Climate models suggest that Golden Gate will be exposed to substantial warming and a slight increase in precipitation. But more of rainstorms will become more intense and less frequent due to an increase in streams of moisture in the sky called "atmospheric rivers." In other words, California may experience weather whiplash as it oscillates between wet and dry extremes.
  • Drought - Even if precipitation increases, we are still at risk of drought. This is because hotter temperatures will lead to an increase in evaporation and aridity as water availability decreases.
  • Wildfire - As summer drought conditions increase, so does the risk of wildfire. Under a high emissions scenario, climate change may increase potential burned area 50% to 100% in the southern parts of Golden Gate by 2085
  • Sea Level Rise - Tidal records at Crissy Field show a rise of about 0.2 meters (8 inches) in the last 100 years. This rate of rise is two to ten times faster than in the previous 5000 years, and the rate is increasing. Even a small rise in sea level can flood and erode broad coastal areas.
  • Loss of Species - Warming water temperatures may contribute to the loss of coho salmon, steelhead, and tidewater goby from our park. Gray whales may avoid Golden Gate's coast as temperatures rise. Climate change threatens endangered species, like the San Franciscan garter snake and the western snowy plover, with extinction.
  • San Francisco Bay Salinity - The bay may become saltier. Warmer winter temperatures in the Sierra will decrease winter snowpack and reduce freshwater inflows into the San Francisco Bay.
  • Ocean Current Changes - Climate change may intensify onshore winds and increase upwelling along Golden Gate's coast. The upwelling would increase nutrient inputs to surface waters, reduce oxygen levels, and lead to ocean acidification, all disruptive to the food webs.
  • Increasing temperatures - Hotter weather will dry out habitats, leading to more drought stress on local plants, including the iconic redwoods of Muir Woods.
 
Three firefighters walk towards a fire that lights the undergrowth of trees, carrying hoses
Climate change could greatly increase the risk of wildfires in California. Longer, hotter summers have already lengthened the fire season at Golden Gate.

Photo of the Mt. Tamalpais fire, 2004

Last updated: October 16, 2020

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Mailing Address:

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Building 201, Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA 94123-0022

Phone:

(415) 561-4700

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