Interconnections Two

Continuing the stark assessment of where we are today.

In yesterday’s post I covered the first five of the eleven facts about sea-level rise. Here are the rest of those facts.

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11 alarming facts about sea-level rise

Russell McLendon, February 26, 2016.

6. Sea levels could rise another 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) in the next 80 years.

sea-level rise mapThis map shows areas that would flood (marked in red) due to 1-meter sea-level rise. (Photo: NASA)

In another study published this month, scientists report that global sea levels will likely rise 0.5 to 1.3 meters (1.6 to 4.3 feet) by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t rapidly reduced. Even if last year’s Paris Agreement does spur ambitious climate policy, sea levels are still projected to rise 20 to 60 cm (7.8 to 23.6 inches) by 2100. Taken with the longer-term effects from melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, that means any strategy to endure sea-level rise must involve adaptation plans as well as efforts to slow the trend.

7. Up to 216 million people currently live on land that will be below sea level or regular flood levels by 2100.

coastal flooding in Typhoon FitowHigher sea levels can exacerbate storm surges, like this 2013 flood in Wenzhou, China. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Of the estimated 147 million to 216 million people in harm’s way, between 41 million and 63 million live in China. Twelve nations have more than 10 million people living on land at risk from sea-level rise, including China as well as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan. Bangladesh is especially vulnerable, identified by the U.N. as the country most in danger from rising seas. Once the ocean rises by 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) next century, it will affect 16 percent of Bangladesh’s land area and 15 percent of its population — that’s 22,000 km2 (8,500 mi2) and 17 million people.

The situation is also urgent for low-lying island nations like Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands, where land is already so close to sea level that a few inches make a world of difference. Some are even mulling mass relocations — the government of Kiribati, for one, has a web page outlining its strategy for “migration with dignity.” A town on Taro Island, the capital of Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands, is also planning to move its entire population in response to rising seas. The small community of Newtok, Alaska, has already begun the difficult process of transplanting itself away from the encroaching coast.

8. Sea-level rise can contaminate water used for drinking and irrigation.

saltwater intrusionSea-level rise can aid saltwater intrusion of freshwater aquifers, as seen in this schematic illustration. (Image: NRC.gov)

In addition to surface flooding, sea-level rise can both push up the freshwater table and contaminate it with seawater, a phenomenon known as saltwater intrusion. Many coastal areas rely on aquifers for drinking water and irrigation, and once they’re tainted by saltwater they may be unsafe for humans as well as crops.

It is possible to remove salt from water, but the process is complex and costly. San Diego County recently opened the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, for example, and several other sites are proposed in the state. Yet that may not be practical for many coastal communities, especially in less wealthy nations.

9. It can also threaten coastal plant and animal life.

loggerhead sea turtle hatchlingFloods fueled by rising seas may harm baby sea turtles, like these South African loggerheads. (Photo: Jeroen Looyé/Flickr)

Humans aren’t the only ones who’ll suffer as sea levels rise. Any coastal plants or animals that can’t quickly move to new, less flood-prone habitats could face dire consequences. As one 2015 study noted, sea turtles have a long-established habit of laying eggs on beaches, which need to stay relatively dry for their babies to hatch.

Inundation for one to three hours reduced egg viability by less than 10 percent, the study’s authors found, but six hours underwater cut viability by about 30 percent. “All embryonic developmental stages were vulnerable to mortality from saltwater inundation,” the researchers write. Even for hatchlings that do survive, being starved of oxygen in the egg could lead to developmental problems later in life, they add.

Other beach life may also be at risk, including plants. A recent study found that some salt marshes can adapt, both by growing vertically and by moving inland, but not all flora will be so fortunate. “Trees have to work harder to pull water out of salty soil; as a result, their growth can be stunted — and if the soil is salty enough, they will die, a common sign of sea-level rise,” Climate Central explains. “Even trees that are especially suited to salty soil can’t survive repeated flooding by seawater.”

10. Global flood damage for large coastal cities could cost $1 trillion a year if cities don’t take steps to adapt.

sea-level rise in TokyoThis Google Earth simulation shows a Tokyo neighborhood with 1.3-meter sea-level rise. (Image: Google Earth)

The average global losses from flooding in 2005 were about $6 billion, but the World Bank estimates they’ll rise to $52 billion per year by 2050 based on socioeconomic changes alone. (That means things like increasing coastal populations and property value). If you add the effects of sea-level rise and sinking land — which is happening even faster in some places — the cost could surge to $1 trillion per year.

11. It’s too late to stop sea-level rise — but not too late to save lives from it.

iceberg off GreenlandA full moon shines over an iceberg that broke off Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melted, sea levels would rise about 6 meters, or 20 feet. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, CO2 emissions linger in the atmosphere for centuries, and today’s CO2 levels have already committed Earth to dangerous sea-level rise. About 99 percent of all freshwater ice resides in two ice sheets: one in Antarctica and one in Greenland. Both are expected to melt if humanity’s CO2 output isn’t curbed quickly, but the question is when — and how much damage we still have time to prevent.

The Greenland ice sheet is smaller and melting more quickly. If it completely melted, sea levels would rise by about 6 meters (20 feet). The Antarctic ice sheet has been more buffered from warming so far, but it’s hardly immune, and would raise the ocean by 60 meters (200 feet) if it melted. (Estimates vary widely on how long these ice sheets might survive — while most expect they’ll take centuries or millennia to melt, a controversial 2015 paper suggested it could happen much more quickly.)

Sea levels have naturally risen and receded for billions of years, but they’ve never risen this quickly in modern history — and they’ve never had so much human help. It’s unclear what effect they’ll have on our species, but what is clear is that our descendants will still be dealing with this problem long after we’re all gone. Giving them a head start on a solution is the least we can do.

“With all the greenhouse gases we already emitted, we cannot stop the seas from rising altogether, but we can substantially limit the rate of the rise by ending the use of fossil fuels,” says Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at Columbia University and co-author of the new study on future sea-level rise. “We try to give coastal planners what they need for adaptation planning, be it building dikes, designing insurance schemes for flooding or mapping long-term settlement retreat.”

As another recent study pointed out, any policy decisions made in the next few years and decades “will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

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Tomorrow, in the final part of this three-part posting I will look at some positive things that we can all be doing now.

But let me leave you with a rather beautiful consequence of these changing times. As seen over on Grist:

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Incredible glacier art pays homage to our disappearing ice

11 thoughts on “Interconnections Two

  1. I was reading this narration of the damage from Sea Level Rise (SLR). You referred to scientific papers. The question is what does “scientific” means. Up to 2015, no reputable scientist would consider that the ice sheets could melt for several millennia. Thus the UN’s IPCC excluded considering them for its computations of SLR. This how one got to a roughly one meter rise.

    However, there is an obvious way to melt maybe half of the ice sheet instantaneously on a geological time scale: four degree centigrade (38 F) water is the densest, and can melt the threshold, the stoop holding them tight. Once that’s done, the water can flow down on the other side, a mile down or more.

    Scientists have to be careful, because they need to be funded. The authorities funding them ultimately depend upon the fossil fuel lobby which fund both politicians and private (“elite”) universities. So scientists cannot dare to roll out a half baked theory, before we get fully baked ourselves.

    But there is an obvious theory, full of science: in November 2015, NASA published studies showing that Antarctica is actually gathering snow… And not losing it. This is expected as the warmer it gets, the more the air carries water, the more it snows (until it turns to rain!)

    So, if Antarctica is gathering ever more snow, as NASA showed, and if Sea Level Rise is accelerating, what is going on?

    Officially, no one knows. But I do, because I think, and, as I am not funded by fossil fuel plutocracy, and as I consider anthropomorphic climate change the greatest problem humanity ever faced.

    As all other factors have been considered, as Sherlock Holmes would observe, all is left is what we cannot see: the ice sheets are already breaking up, from below. As I described in several essays, there is evidence that the Totten glacier, the plug holding the giant Aurora Basin in Antarctica, has melted on hundreds of kilometers, below.

    So the ice sheets are breaking down, this is what explains accelerated, “unexplained” SLR.

    1. These are chilling facts, and my pun is deliberate! In a way, I hope that SLR is accelerating and that we are close, say fewer than five years, from some cataclysmic signal that more of the same is just not behaviorally, socially and politically acceptable.

      Correction: I hope we are closer than the life of two Presidential terms, eight years, from that signal. So the next President of the USA may have an interesting job!

  2. Meanwhile, the arrogance of plutocratic, tax stealing Apple Inc. is greater than ever (its GC went to Congress yesterday). New York City alone has more than 200 criminal iphones they can’t open. Western democracies have thousands of iphones related to criminal or terrorists activities they cannot open. And we are on the verge of completely unbreakable quantum communications generalized (plutocrats already use them). Apple depends upon complete secrecy for not paying its hundred BILLION plus tax bill.

    Not paying taxes and plotting our demise is all what plutocrats worry about. SLR is not their business. They have mansions in Aspen and Sun Valley…

  3. Yes, one of the most distressing aspects of global warming is, at least to me, the impact felt by non-human creatures. They live as they always have, while our species continues expanding into their habitat and escalating usage of every damn thing. Anyhow, I try and appreciate it all while I’m here, which is easier on Hawaii Island than anywhere else I can imagine … but still. Total withdrawal doesn’t seem an option, given we will consume, albeit less than many to perhaps most, until we die … On that note, cheers, Paul! Aloha.

    1. Thanks Bela. Yes, there times when one feels rather overwhelmed by the scale of our combined ignorance and madness as to what’s going on! At least you live in a most beautiful part of the planet.

  4. Yes these are indeed Chilling facts Paul, and I have to agree with Bela about the destruction of habitat we subject our animal kingdom to. It will only be when our habitat is visibly under water ( which if you note more and more floods are being reported world wide now each year ) will we then cry in horror of horrors and say Why didn’t we react sooner!…
    Edgar Cayce had predicted a lot of what has already happened in regards to floods and the altering of global coastlines.

    1. Hadn’t come across Edgar Cayce before but just did a quick web search and made a note to follow up the man. If Partrice is right, and I have no doubt that he is, the “cry in horror” may not be that far away.

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