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Quoted in Mercury Newspaper Article on Sea Level and South SF Bay

Here is a new article in the San Jose Mercury News with some quotes based on our new work on sea level rise and marshes in the southern San Francisco Bay.

How Drawbridge is drowning — and what it means for our future

Rising seas and sinking muds doom once-vibrant ghost town


The ghost town of Drawbridge is seen from this drone view near San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, June 14, 2018. The town was formerly known as Saline City, and was abandoned decades ago and is now slowly sinking into the marsh. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)




A century ago, the island town of Drawbridge held 90 homes, hotels and cabins, with hunting so bountiful that dead ducks served as currency at its gambling tables.

Now — in a rare act of reverse colonization — civilization is ceding to the elements in this windswept marsh, located near Alviso at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Rising tides flood a dozen or so surviving skeletal structures. Owls nest inside battered roofs. Mud entombs a once-tidy network of boardwalks. Every step is as soft as a sponge, with pickle weed looping around ankles like booby traps.

Unlike ghost towns of Bodie, Calico or Virginia City, there’s no rescue for Drawbridge. 

“It’s drowning… a memorial to past human aspirations and a memorial to failure,” said Glen MacDonald, a UCLA professor of geography who studies the impact of rising waters caused by climate change, on West Coast estuaries.

And as waters continue to rise, the entire island could vanish, according to MacDonald, one of the authors of a recent study led by the U.S. Geological Survey that found that rising sea levels will threaten every salt marsh in California. Their research, published in the journal Science Advances, predicts that as sea level rises from 1.5 to 5.5 feet over the next century, marshes will be squeezed out — and water will lap up against our cities.

Unlikely town, impossible place

From birth, Drawbridge was an unlikely community on an impossible site, just feet above sea level.

Originally a wild marsh between two sloughs, the 80-acre island was created when the South Pacific Coast Railroad Co. laid a train track linking Alviso and Newark, on a route from Santa Cruz to Alameda.

The railroad brought a growing population to its shores. In the 1880s, there were so many hunters and fishermen that the railroad offered baggage cars as sleeping quarters. Within a decade, Drawbridge — named for the movable bridge that opened for boat traffic carrying canned goods from Santa Clara Valley to San Francisco — was designated an official train stop. Trains brought more people and more construction. Some cabins were weekend and vacation homes; others were full-time residences, homes for families with children.

Newly published photos and interviews reveal – in residents’ own words – the birth and death of the community. The book, called “Sinking Underwater” by Anita Goldwasser and Cecilia D. Craig of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, describes a quirky place that thrived for decades with no town council, no police, no fire protection, no school.

In 1928, the town peaked at 90 dwellings. North Drawbridge was largely Protestant; South Drawbridge was Catholic. Homes were built on stilts, and connected by boardwalks. Some homes had lampposts, wood cabinets and paneling; others had burlap wall coverings and linoleum floors. Redwood shingles were sealed with oil for durability.

Fresh water, drawn from a tower, sold for $5 a year. Electricity arrived in 1931. Residents were resourceful; to move heavy supplies, they built carts that rolled along the tracks. Some commuted by train to jobs in San Jose, Newark and Oakland.

“The front of our house had a nice, big screened porch,” recalled former resident Ozzie Long, in an interview recounted in the book. “My mother used to bring her embroidery.”

Even though Drawbridge lacked solid dry land, parents brought small swing sets and wading pools for their young children. Guests stayed in hotels: Sprung’s Hotel, with white lace curtains and tablecloths, or Hunter’s Hotel, with a ballroom, bar and player piano.

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An archival photo of the train station in the ghost town of Drawbridge, near San Jose, California. (Courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife)

Drawbridge’s decline

But the town’s surge in popularity, combined with other factors, proved unsustainable, according to Goldwasser and Craig.

Without regulatory protection, waterfowl populations plummeted. Using cannons loaded with chains and nails, hunters could kill more than 500 ducks with a single shot. Ducks were so easy to kill that they fetched only three cents each, according to a historical summary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Bay became polluted by waste, no longer sustaining fish and shrimp. Drawbridge’s toilets were built over water, flushed only by tides. Even worse was the raw sewage emptied by nearby fast-growing cities, agricultural runoff and the vegetable and fruit pulp dumped by canneries.

Then the island started sinking — an estimated 10 feet from the 1800s to 1970, according to USFWS senior wildlife biologist Doug Thomson. Most of the collapse was caused by loss of groundwater due to historic agricultural pumping. But there was also compression of the island’s soft clay mud soils.

It became a constant struggle to elevate or rebuild homes. Boating grew more difficult due to the construction of levees and salt ponds by the Leslie Salt Company. With no firemen to answer the call, cabins burned. Then the Great Depression hit.

The effort to survive proved futile. Drawbridge’s population plummeted — and by 1955, trains no longer stopped.

“They were getting wetter, and running out of food – so people started to move away,” said Thomson. With fewer residents, crime spiked.

Charles Luce and his dog Quincy were the last residents of Drawbridge, fending off vandals with threats into the 1970s.

“Four times they broke down the door when I was inside. I had to take charge them,” he recalled in a 2000 interview. “I’m well-armed, with a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun that makes ’em dizzy looking down the barrel.”

He packed up in 1976 after Drawbridge became federal property, joining the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. All public access ended in the late 1990s.

Charred, collapsed and inaccessible, the remaining homes aren’t worth saving, federal authorities have decided. There’s another reason to let nature take its course: Drawbridge is now considered endangered species habitat. A steady stream of visitors could harm the federally-protected bird called Ridgway’s rail or salt harvest mouse.

“We do try to preserve structures when we can. But it’s not feasible to maintain or restore Drawbridge for what it would cost,” said wildlife biologist Cheryl Strong of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Complex. “Our main priority is the endangered species that are out there.”

The triumph of nature

A white egret flies near the ghost town of Drawbridge is seen near San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, June 14, 2018. The town was formerly known as Saline City, and was abandoned decades ago and is now slowly sinking into the marsh. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group) 

Now, relieved of human pressures, nature seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. Wilderness encroaches from all sides, claiming what little remains.

Rain blows through broken windows and sneaks beneath shingles. As water enters, nails rust; their grip loosens. Mildew munches through joists, studs and rafters. Roofs splay. Trusses collapse. Walls tilt.

Carpets are now made of pickleweed and cord grass. Lichens paint clapboard siding. Insects are flourishing; so are brambles, snaking around paths and pipes.

The Bay is cleaner — and as the marsh recovers, so do populations of crabs, oysters, mussels and shrimp. Gray foxes, black rails and harbor seals have been spotted at Drawbridge. Ducks like Northern pintail, shovelers and cinnamon teal are returning. Children’s voices are gone, replaced by the chatter of marsh wrens.

Submerged, the old town may someday be little more than a faint ripple on deep water.

Since Drawbridge was built a century ago, sea level globally has climbed six to eight inches — and in the next century, it will climb much higher, according to UCLA’s McDonald.

“We may see new Drawbridge cities,” he predicted, “which fail because the cost of keeping out the sea is too high.”


LA Weekly on Our New PLoS 1 Paper regarding Climate Change and Fire

LA Weekly published and article on our new PLoS 1 paper on climate change in California and the Southwest.

You can see the scientific paper here –

Loisel J, MacDonald GM, Thomson MJ (2017) Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0186282.

Time Magazine Interview on California Fires

I was recently interviewed by Time Magazine on the 2017 California wildfire season.  The combination of high precipitation in the winter promoting much fine fuel growth, the long period since last significant rainfall and the high summer temperatures being experiences in Southern California have produced a dangerous situation.  The main unknown in the equation is the frequency and timing of ignition sources. Let’s hope for the best.

Read the Time article here –

Seal Beach Earthquake Study in the News

Evidence for coseismic subsidence events in a southern California coastal saltmarsh

Our lab collaborated on a recent paleoseismology at the Seal Beach Marsh using foraminifera to identify subsidence events related to the Newport-Inglewood fault.  The study was published in Reports and drew coverage in the Los Angeles Times.  Rob Leeper, formerly USGS and now at UC Riverside was the leader of the work. Much thanks to Dr. Simona Avnaim-Katav in our UCLA lab for the foram work. Take home message – the fault, which transects an important built-up area of Southern California is more active than assumed.

Read LA Times Article here –

Scientific paper  is here –

AAG Presidential Column – Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography

Creating and Preserving Actionable and Policy-Relevant Geography


Glen M. MacDonald

Ensconced in our academic environs, as students or as faculty, we are sometimes accused of being removed and aloof from the issues of the real world and our research regarded as being of purely scholarly interest. Indeed, there are times for many of us that this may be more than a little bit true. I certainly have not been immune to being intrigued by questions with no apparent implications for the practical problems of the here-and-now. However, today, as often has been the case over its long history, the discipline of geography is being called upon — and called out — because of its importance in identifying and addressing problems of the wider world. Three recent items in the news reminded me of the potential role of geographers and geography in addressing the myriad challenges swirling around us at the present time.

First, this past week the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, spoke at a Republican Party meeting in Philadelphia. She then met with President Trump in Washington. The Prime Minister’s speech was one in which geography, and geopolitics in particular, formed a central focus. She turned her attention from one geographic region to another, from the threats felt by the Baltic Republics, to the situation in the Mideast, to details of British trade with Pennsylvania. This should not be surprising, the Prime Minister does after all hold an undergraduate degree in geography from Oxford. We may debate their political stands, but it is notable for our discipline that the first world leader to meet with the newly inaugurated President of the United States is a geographer. May’s speech might be taken in part as a geography lesson for the now empowered, but increasingly nativist, Republicans. Political Editor, George Parker, who is himself a geographer, wrote recently in the Financial Times about the Prime Minister’ grounding in geography and the growing political influence of the discipline. Parker concludes that “Her arrival in Downing Street is symbolic of the subject’s renaissance.” In this he is speaking not about a purely academic renaissance, but ascension of geography to a prominent place on the world political stage and the highest ranks of policy making.

Also in the past week, a more critical take on President Trump’s policies was offered by the geographer Michael Dear, professor emeritus at Berkeley. In interviews with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and later with Michael Smerconish, Dear provided criticisms of the proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He informed CNN viewers on the 650 miles of current walls and fencing and the geographical obstacles that confound extending this barrier in many places. He also critiqued the efficiency of such structures and the policies behind them. The demand for Dear to share his expert opinion on the geographical and policy problems of the proposed wall is based upon his book Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide. The fact that this book was published in 2013, its research and writing occurring well before the recent election and new administration, displays a prescience that one would hope geographers can bring to real-world issues.

In the realm of natural and environmental sciences there has been increasingly strong emphasis on conducting research which is informed by, and directly applicable to, issues of environmental resource management, planning and policy. In the past this work fell under the rubric of “applied research.” Today the term “actionable science” is often used to denote research which can be directly used in management and planning and the term “policy relevant science” used to denote work which has direct engagement with policy questions. By its very nature, the discipline of geography, which is after all concerned with the Earth’s physical and biological processes and features, and human use of, and impact on, those features and processes, should be a fountainhead of actionable and policy relevant knowledge. I would argue we are seeing increasing efforts to produce actionable and policy relevant geography throughout our discipline and that the recognition of the value of such work within the world of geographical scholarship has also increased. Take for example the trend in the impact of the journal Applied Geography. The journal has seen its Researchgate Impact rise from <0.5 in 2000 to hover around 4.0 over the past few years.

Increasing participation in actionable research is a widespread trend in universities that extends far beyond geography and began well before the present century. Michael Gibbons and his colleagues described this emerging trend and its impetus in their influential 1994 book The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. More recently, a 2015 study published in Higher Education by Peter James Bentley, Magnus Gulbrandsen and Svein Kyvik analyzed survey data from over 12,000 academics in 15 countries. They found that in the United States the number of academics who conducted solely applied and practical research significantly exceeded the number who conducted solely basic and theoretical research. However, the preponderance of academics surveyed conducted a blend of applied and basic research. There are a number of factors driving the embracement of applied and practical research. These range from altruistic desires of students and faculty to demonstrably contribute to alleviating health, social and environmental harm, a greater communication of such applied issues and the need for specific research, greater academic recognition and acceptance of such research in universities, and greater funding and other support for such research both inside and outside of academia.

Now, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that purely academic and theoretical work has no place within the geography corpus. Within academia in particular such work must be valued and supported. I do want to suggest, however, that geographers have, like other academics, increasingly embraced actionable and policy relevant research and that our discipline has much to contribute to mitigating the world’s health, societal and environmental ills in this manner. Aside from the benefits accruing to people and planet by such contributions, the individual researcher and the discipline also benefit. Bentley et al. concluded that researchers engaged in practical and applied research generally were better funded than their colleagues. In addition, they note that that increased engagement with practical and applied research can produce “shifts towards collaborative and transdisciplinary research, greater heterogeneity in the sites of knowledge production, deeper social accountability and broader forms of quality control.” These would seem to be goals which many of us in Geography embrace for our discipline. Finally, our actionable engagement with widely perceived health, social and environmental challenges raises the profile of geography and geographers amongst our academic colleagues, the public and policy makers. These are all audiences upon which the long-term health of our discipline depends. Simply stated, the discipline of geography must be widely seen as relevant and of practical importance to people and planet if it is to survive and grow in the 21st century.

Fortunately, geography, through substantive interests such as health geography, demography, housing, economic geography, social justice, development, hydrology, climate change, conservation biogeography etc., is well positioned to produce actionable and policy relevant research. The twinning of geography with planning in a number of departments and schools provides an exciting opportunity to engage in actionable and policy relevant research while strengthening internal ties. There is no question that our technical capacity in areas such as mapping, surveys, qualitative social research, geographic information sciences, remote sensing, etc., also equip us to be leaders in actionable and policy relevant work. In this, geographers are not only using, but creating new technologies and approaches. As one example I would point to AAG Executive Director Doug Richardson’s 2013 Annals article on the development “real-time GIS” and the near instantaneous integration of spatiotemporal data, which has widespread applications in government, businesses, and society in general. The capacity for geography to engage in actionable and policy relevant research must, however, be realized through efforts by geographers to seize these opportunities.

In the past decade or so my external research funding has almost entirely shifted to actionable and policy relevant work. I have found this immensely satisfying both on a personal level and in terms of supporting my work and expanding my research team. In this effort I have noted the remarkable ability of such work to snowball in which an initial engagement leads to deeper understanding of a problem, expanded contacts and collaborations, and ultimately additional research opportunities and support. My own experience is that this snowball is started by reading broadly beyond disciplinary and academic pieces and attending meetings and communicating directly with those involved in management, planning and policy. It takes a commitment to being open to actionable research opportunities that arise and willing to think hard on how your geographical tool set might be modified and applied to such applied research questions. One must also work hard at figuring out how to translate your research into the language and concepts which are employed in the management, planning and policy communities with whom you wish to engage. Pursue opportunities to co-produce research with the members of those communities and can deepen your understanding of the problem and increase the transmission of your work. Finally, one must be willing to accept that you may have to learn new perspectives and that your work may not be the sole or most important deciding factor in a management, planning or policy decision — i.e. display some humility.

I do not want to mislead anyone, however, into thinking that the production of actionable and policy relevant geography is risk-free. Work which transcends purely academic interest can have real socioeconomic and environmental consequences. There are often two or more conflicting sides on such issues. One should expect that important actionable research can potentially draw sharp public and private attacks. An obvious example is the ad hominin assaults launched in debates over the science of climate change. Although this may be personally unpleasant and even professionally challenging it should not be a reason for geographers to turn away from actionable and policy relevant work. Rather it should be a call to action. There will be times that we as individuals, as an association, and as a discipline must fight to preserve our ability to engage in actionable and policy relevant research. This then brings me to the third news item that I wish to relate to you.

At this time there is a direct and dangerous political attack launched explicitly against geospatial data and geographical research that could have a dramatic chilling effect on applied geographical research and ultimately on racial equality in the United States. Twinned Senate and House of Representatives bills (S.103 and H.R. 482) introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the Senate and by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) along with a number of Republican Congressmen in the House would do the following:

SEC. 3. Prohibition on use of Federal funds.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

The wording above is clear and troubling. Not only would the creation of new Federal geospatial databases on racial disparities be prohibited, so too would access to existing geospatial information of this sort and the use of Federal funds from agencies such as the National Science Foundation to study such data. As written, this represents a direct attack on the ability of geographers and others to produce actionable and policy relevant research on racial disparities in this country. What then can be done about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482 to geospatial and geographical information and research? The AAG has already drafted and sent a letter of concern to Senator Lee. However, I would suggest more needs be done by our members directly. First, spread the word to geographers, other scholars and the public about the threat posed by S.103 and H.R. 482. Second, take a moment to contact your Federal Senators and representative – easily done via Third, you may want to also contact the Bill’s sponsors with your concerns. Finally, stay aware, informed and communicative of similar threats to geospatial information or geographical research that may arise in the future. We may well be entering an era when not only has the need to create actionable and policy relevant geography never been more pressing, but the fight to preserve our ability to conduct such research never more necessary.

Join the conversation on Twitter #PresidentAAG

—Glen M. MacDonald