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"How High Will Sea Level Rise by 2xxx ?" is the Wrong Question

In more than a year of public speaking and consulting about rising sea level, the most frequent question I get is, "How high will it get by 2050?" -- or some variation focusing on the year 2100, the person's lifetime, etc. It is asked by corporations, individuals, and community leaders. Though perfectly reasonable, I believe it is the wrong question for two entirely different reasons.

Sea Level Rise in Just 4 Key Points

Most people explaining climate change keep adding more and more information to their list of explanations. I seem to be going in the other direction. My opportunities to speak about rising sea level continue to grow. The more I give talks to diverse and large audiences, the more I have learned to distill the key points down to the essence -- the minimum number to make an easily understood and irrefutable argument. Let me share them with you. 

Sandy - One year later - Have we learned anything?

October 29, 2012 the world stood stunned as Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and New York. Looking back on this anniversary, have we learned anything? The answer is mixed.

I have had a particular vantage point to this story as my book about sea level rise, storms, and extreme tides was published the week prior to Sandy.

Eerily I deseribed exactly such an event in that location, a story now fairly well known due to my being thrust onto national and international television to explain my "amazing prediction." (The truth is I consider it just a phenomenal coincidence.)

An annecdotal sampling of what I hear, good and silly:

  • The good news is the Sandy seems to have been a wake up call for diverse communities to consider coastal vulnerability. The new discussion about what a 'rogue storm' like Sandy could do in unlikely places is a notable and good result.
  • Even more interesting is that places like Miami Beach, and more generally South Florida, are now discussing vulnerability to rising sea level, apart from their historical concern about hurricanes. The subject was almost never voiced before Sandy. Now it is on the front page of Florida newspapers (and elsewhere), discussed at Chamber of Commerce meetings, by attorneys considering how to protect clients, and more.
  • Dr. Harold Wanless, Chairman of Geosciences at the University of Miami tells me that for thirty years his concerns about rising sea level were ignored in the business community. Since 'Sandy' some leaders are soberly asking him "How long do we have?'

 

Government Sea level projection Low and Misleading - AGAIN

Ten to thirty inches of sea level rise this century.  That is what the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says.  We should be so lucky. Those summary 'headline' numbers are misleading to the poimt of being irresponsible. 

I don't mean to be disrepectful of the IPCC's generally excellent review of climate science, but the way they portray sea level rise is deceptively low, just like their last report issued in 2007. This really is worth understanding and sharing so that we can realistically assess what is possible for sea level rise in the decades ahead. 

Let me explain  what the IPCC includes in those figures, what they don't, and why many scientists think they are creating a very wrong impression.  Even most journalists and policy makers are left with the impression that three feet of sea level rise ("SLR") is the worst that could happen this century. That could very well be the best case on our present course. (BTW, even three feet of SLR would be a huge problem, considering that the shoreline moves about 300 feet inland for each foot of SLR, as a global average.)

The 10-32 inches (26-82 cm) cited in their table SPM2 is a just a summary of the chapter about sea level, but it is as far as most readers get. You can see the full report online, or I will reproduce the relevant part of that table here. 

Why South Dakota Blizzard Fits with Global Warming

South Dakota and Wyoming are buried under almost four feet of fresh snow from an early season blizzard. Surprisingly we can expect more of this as the planet continues to warm. 

The oceans have been getting warmer in the last few decades and that will almost certainly continue due to increased levels of greenhouse gases trapping heat. Warmer oceans mean more evaporation, therefore more moisture in the air.

That excess moisture will precipitate as higher rainfall, or SNOW depending on the prevailing temperature. The last two months have provided plenty of examples of record rainfall and flooding including Hungary, Miami, Portland-OR, Manilla, China -- in fact all over the world.

Welcome to Schipol (Amsterdam) - 11 feet below sea level

Schipol  - Amsterdam Airport - is about eleven feet below sea level. The name translates as "ship grave." The origin goes back two centuries when it was a shallow sea, prone to occeassional violent storms, sinking many ships. 

Schipol today is one of the world's busiest airports, about twenty minutes by train from the heart of Amsterdam. When I landed here on the weekend, it occurred to me that this terrific engineering work can be both an example of what is possible with good large scale planning, and should also be an alert that not all areas have the same possibilities.

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