Visualize Sea-Level Rise with Time Goggles

Glimpsing the future of sea level rise along the Marin bay shoreline We humans are a visually-attuned species.  For most of us “seeing is believing,” in that we understand complex ideas, mathematical concepts or raw data best when we can visualize them.

This ability to conjure up the abstract or unseen unlocks our understanding of some of nature’s more closely-held secrets; it gives us a “potential reality” glimpse of the impact of our actions, before we stumble unwittingly into undesired consequences.  At the risk of invoking one too many clichés all at once: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Last year we introduced readers to the OWL, a device that its creator, San Francisco-based startup OWLized, calls “time goggles.” The OWL looks like the common “retro” viewfinder you’ve seen and probably used at scenic lookouts in national parks across the country. Drop a dime into the slot and get a close-up view of the world around you. The difference is that the OWL lets you see into the future, or even the past, and there’s no dime required to see it.

Owl viewfinder - the future of infrastructure visualization Based on the success and rapid advances in computer visualization and 3-D modeling technology, the OWL debuted in 2013 with a project in partnership with Autodesk for San Francisco’s Better Market Street initiative.

Using Autodesk’s Infraworks civil design modeling software, the OWL gave all stakeholders in the project, from city residents to merchants and policymakers, a 3-D, real-life glimpse into the proposed future of Market Street, the hub of downtown San Francisco.

The ability to transform conceptual engineering and architectural drawings into a lifelike representation — displayed through the familiar viewer — has helped guide the future of San Francisco.

What if we could turn that viewer out towards the bay, and look at what the future holds with climate change and rising seas? For many residents along the Northern Bay shoreline, the OWL will soon do just that.

Visualizing sea-level rise

Projections indicate 11 to 19 inces of sea-level rise along the San Francisco Bay by mid-century and as much as 30 to 55 inches by 2100, or 2.5 to over 4.5 feet. Such rise in sea level will clearly have significant impact along the Marin waterfront (indeed, the entire Bay Area) in the coming decades.

Two OWL viewers will be installed at the Almonte entrance of the Sausalito-Mill Valley multi-purpose pathway for 12 weeks this spring. The viewers are part of a pilot project that will explore ways to engage community understanding and participation in developing policy to adapt to sea-level rise in the region.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is responsible for mapping regional flood plain areas, a task it hopes to accomplish alongside the local community. The OWLs will give an opportunity for anyone using the pathway to get a real impression of what the surrounding area will look like as the sea rises.

Using Owlized virtual reality software, the OWL will project visualizations–made with Autodesk 3D modeling tools, the OWLs will project possible future scenarios in the actual 360-degree environment, as well as how the area looked in the past. It’s one thing to talk about 55 inches of sea-level rise; it’s another thing to actually see it.

A $150,000 FEMA grant is funding the effort, a public-private partnership between FEMA, the County of Marin, OWLized, Autodesk, the nonprofit Climate Access and research partner Dr. Susanne Moser of Stanford University.

“This is such an exciting way to learn about future sea-level rise,” said Supervisor Kate Sears, representing District 3 in Southern Marin county. “I’m very curious to see how the community interacts with it, especially kids. They represent the generation that will live with the effects of climate change. I hope that the OWLs will intrigue people and inspire action.”

Image credit: Franco Folini, courtesy flickr

Ed note: This post has been edited since it was first published.

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

6 responses

  1. “Projections indicate 11 to 19 inces of sea-level rise along the San Francisco Bay by mid-century and as much as 30 to 55 inches by 2100”

    Maybe they could even show us what it looked like in 1800, be fore man’s industrialization.

    Then just fer kicks they can simulate what it looked like when WSELs were 300 feet lower during the last glaciation….

  2. Ridiculous in the extreme. Worst case projection is what they use. And currently we are way, way behind even the lowest case projections made 20 years ago for today. We have gained less than 2 inches on sea level since 1980. We were forecast to have gained 9-12 inches by now. At this rate we might gain 4 more inches by 2100.
    AS further proof of concept look at NASA itself and Cape Canaveral facility less than 8 feet above sea level today. If they take there own forecast seriously then watch for them to make plans to move this site away from Florida. If and when they do that then we can worry about sea level rise is real and threatening. If they stay put which they are for the next 100 years anyway then the sky is falling crowd is just that!

  3. Sea-level rise by as much as 55 inches by 2100 works out to over 16 mm/yr.

    The four tide gauges in the Bay area tell us that sea level rise over the last 30 years ranges from 1.3 mm/yr at Point Reyes to a negative -0.3 mm/yr at the Alameda Naval Air Station. Rates San Francisco and Monterey over the last 30 years are 0.7 and 0.2 mm/yr respectively. In the Bay area the rate of sea level rise has dropped over 0.5 mm/yr since the 1980s.

    Tide gauge data can be found at The Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level on the net. Anyone with some curiosity and modest Excel skills can verify these numbers.

    Steve Case – Milwaukee, WI

  4. I have to wonder where the author got the figures, because satellites say the sea level is rising at a rate of 3.2 mm/yr or about a foot/century and this rate is constant.

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