Tag Archives: Sea Level Rise

Important new meta-study of sea level rise in the US.

This is not a peer reviewed meta-study, but a meta-study nonetheless. Reuters has engaged in a major journalistic effort to examine sea level rise and has released the first part (two parts, actually). It is pretty good; I only found one paragraph to object to, and I’ll ignore that right now.

There are two reasons this report is important. First, it documents something about sea level rise that I’ve been trying to impress on people all along. The effects of sea level rise do not end at one’s perceived position of a new shoreline. Here’s what I mean.

Suppose you are standing on a barrier island, and your feet are on a grassy sandy knoll 10 feet above high tide. You are standing next to a climatologist who says “some projections say that the sea level will rise by one foot more than it already has by 2100. You breath a sigh of relief because you are standing 10 feet above high tide, and you realize that one foot of seal level rise is easily accommodated by the sea you see in front of you.

But you would be a fool to not be worried for several reasons. First, you are standing on a 10 foot high sea cliff. The sea cliff represents erosion that happened since the last bout of sea level rise (and is actually an ongoing process). When the sea rises by one foot that sea cliff will erode away. The land many hundreds of yards behind you may be fine, but the place you are standing will be gone. It is hard to predict how much land will horizontally erode with a given rise in sea level, but it is generally a positive number, rarely zero (there are places where it effectively can be zero but not along the sandy shores). Second, as you stand there looking at the sea, the restaurants and businesses along the road behind you and the residential and commercial properties all across the nearby hinterland are busy lowering the ground water by taking water out for their own use as if it didn’t matter. So, while the sea may rise up one foot by 2011, it may also drop a foot because of the groundwater removal. Third, if the sea rises only a little across certain kinds of sediments, the weight of the sea may further suppress the land. Fourth, if this bit of land you are standing on is along the US Atlantic coast, you probably get more than one foot of sea level rise if the global sea level goes up by one foot. This has to do with the shape of the oceans, wind and water currents, etc. Fifth, one foot of sea level rise means many feet of extra storm surge when that rare tropical storm comes along. The chance of a hurricane hitting a given beach along the Atlantic is low. But we’re talking about the year 2011. Between now and then a hurricane with enhanced storm surge will come along and remove the land you are standing on. Sixth, the climatologist you are standing next to is an optimist. He is referring to “some estimates.” The funny thing about sea level rise estimates, as well as polar ice sheet melt estimates, is that they keep changing over time, always in one direction. Ten years ago the estimate was one foot by 2200. Now, it’s 4 feet, and some estimates suggest 6.6 feet. Also, looking at the paleo record, the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were at their present level plus what we expect to put in the air over the next few decades for good measure, sea levels were so high we used meters instead of feet! Figure 25 feet, maybe 40. The town behind you will eventually be gone, buried deeply in the sea, a nice fishing ground. That probably won’t be by 2100, but is it really your job to throw every human that exists after 2100 under the climate change bus because it is a nice round number? No. No, it isn’t.

The Reuters report deals with most of those issues (though in a different way), chronicling numerous cases of actual current and ongoing encroachment of the sea on the land. And this brings us to the second key thing about this report. Reuters documents that the humans are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Local business leaders who want to preserve their short term profits are controlling supposedly long-term-thinking state and federal agencies so nothing gets done. Big Science (in the form of NASA) is busy studying glacial melt and sea level rise from rocket-launching bases that are being washed away by the rising ocean, and acting as though they can somehow stop that. Congress. It does nothing. And so on.

This is the first in a series of reports, it is excellent, and I look forward to the rest of them. You can read it here. By the way, a lot of what is documented by Reuters was covered earlier in this book: Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, worth a look!

(The graphic above is from the National Climate Assessment report of 2014.)

Humans accepting climate change vs. Jell-O: The Coastal Effect

There is an old theory in psychology that characterizes humans as a bowl of Jell-O (Jelly for some of you). Life pokes at the Jell-O, the Jell-O jiggles. Eventually the jiggles begin to change the Jell-O, so certain kinds of pokes result in certain kinds of responses. The Jell-O gurgles, babbles, notices things, learns, develops, and eventually becomes self aware.

That is a great oversimplification of a theory that was, in turn, a great oversimplification of human development, yet it does seem to apply in many ways to human behavior. When it comes to climate change, people seem more accepting of the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming when it is hot out, less so when it is cool. Nature pokes, or fails to poke, and the Jell-O responds. Sadly, this seems to be how our Big Brains work.

Climate Change has had, and will have, a very wide range of effects across the entire planet, and most of them have had or will have significant impacts on humans. Imagine a world that is warmed by an average of 3.0 degrees C. This is likely given our current and expected release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere. That is a warming significantly more than we have experienced so far. One could take the effects that have already occurred and simply extrapolate into the future, and that may work for some effects. But other effects may be fundamental qualitative changes in climate systems that will be more difficult to characterize or predict. For example, 30 years ago it may have been difficult to predict changes in the jet stream that would cause widespread changes in weather patterns, threatening agriculture, water supplies, and causing frequent floods or other disasters. But that seems to have happened. Maybe in a couple of more decades, that effect will go away and something else will happen.

So, imagine this world with 3.0 degrees greater average heat, and try to estimate what the worst effects will be. Clearly, this is a complicated question. One change in climate may strongly affect people in one part of the world and a different change may strongly affect people in another part of the world, and those different groups of people may have different levels of adaptability owing to economic or infrastructure differences. It is really hard to say what will happen. In a warmer world, high-humidity super-heat waves may happen in which large populations will find themselves experiencing temperatures well above body temperature for several days in a row. People in those areas, not all of them but a noticeable number, will simply die of the heat. Severe continental storms could become more common, so the chances of a community being wiped out by tornadoes or derechos may become extraordinarily high. Perhaps people will truly consider the costs and benefits of living in a “tornado ally” rather than simply knowing that tornado alley is a thing and otherwise more or less ignoring it. Arid regions may become hyper-arid for the long term, so water management simply becomes impossible. Even if California is inundated every few years with repeated pineapples express, if extreme drought becomes the norm a significant breadbasket may simply be a place we no longer grow food. And so on.

One change that is inevitable is the rise of sea level. The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been associated in the past with sea levels significantly higher than they are now. The sea hasn’t risen to that level yet simply because it takes time, though we really don’t know how much time it takes. If we stopped adding fossil Carbon to the atmosphere today, the sea will still rise, significantly, perhaps several meters. We have accomplished this and we can’t un-accomplish it. But we are very likely to not stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, or any time soon, so it is likely that the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will will eventually achieve will be associated with even higher sea levels. Coastal cities will be inundated. Small Pacific nations will cease to exist. All of that is going to happen, pretty much no matter what. When you imagine all of the different bad things that may happen in the future, sea level rise may or many not be on the top of your list, and it may in fact not be the worst thing that occurs. But at present, sea level rise is probably the biggest single effect that can be easily identified, won’t not happen no matter what, and can be understood the best; how heat waves, drought, flash floods, etc. work, and what their effects will be is hard to grasp. Losing land to the ocean is not hard to grasp. (Though I quickly add most people still don’t get the level of magnitude of sea level rise that we will experience, eventually.)

So, where does the bowl of Jell-O fit in to all of this? A recent study, in PLOS One, examines attitudes about climate change in relation to distance from the sea. The study takes place in New Zealand, but references other studies that look at similar things elsewhere. The bottom line is this: The farther a human lives from the sea, the less likely the human is to accept the reality of climate change science. Putting this another way, the father a bowl of Jell-O is from that which may poke it, the less poked it is, and thus, the less it develops, learns, evolves, gets smart.

Psychologists have examined the many psychological barriers to both climate change belief and concern. One barrier is the belief that climate change is too uncertain, and likely to happen in distant places and times, to people unlike oneself. Related to this perceived psychological distance of climate change, studies have shown that direct experience of the effects of climate change increases climate change concern. The present study examined the relationship between physical proximity to the coastline and climate change belief, as proximity may be related to experiencing or anticipating the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise. We show, in a national probability sample of 5,815 New Zealanders, that people living in closer proximity to the shoreline expressed greater belief that climate change is real and greater support for government regulation of carbon emissions. This proximity effect held when adjusting for height above sea level and regional poverty. The model also included individual differences in respondents’ sex, age, education, political orientation, and wealth. The results indicate that physical place plays a role in the psychological acceptance of climate change, perhaps because the effects of climate change become more concrete and local.

Another study done in 2011 indicated that Americans are more willing to alter their behavior related to climate change depending on an number of factors. In that study, distance to coast was a significant factor predicting willingness to change, but only one of several factors. Interestingly, knowledge of climate change science and distance to coast had similar levels of effect in that case. Another study done in 2013 “showed in [the] U.S. … that risk from climate change is perceived to be significantly lower for respondents located farther away from the coastline. Indeed, among the other geo-physical variables considered in this study (e.g., relative elevation, sea-level rise/inundation risk, temperature trend), distance to the coast had the strongest association with climate change risk perception.” cited here.

I live and work in the Upper Midwest. There are no coasts nearby. I imagine the people around me as bowls of Jell-O that are unlikely to be poked by concern over sea level rise, and thus unlikely to accept climate change as real.

Or are they?

I frequently give talks on climate change, in the Upper Midwest, and I always talk about sea level rise, partly because I think it is very important and partly because I think there is more certainty about sea level rise (aside from the timing, we are not very certain about that) compared to many other effects of climate change. People get this. Even though we live far from the coast, it is possible to show people how important sea level rise is.

Do you like rice? Do you have any idea how much of the global supply of rice is grown in regions that will be inundated by even a couple of meters of sea level rise? Do you ever go to Mexico during the winter? Did you ever notice how close to the sea, vertically, the Maya Riviera is? The region is built on coral, essentially, a vast “inland sea” risen temporarily out of the ocean for your pleasure. Temporarily. Are you, or is anyone important to you, in the agricultural business? (Many are around here.) Did you notice that New Orleans is the most important sea port for bringing fertilizer into the region, and bringing produce out? NOLA will not survive even a very modest, not too far in the future, rise in sea level. Were you thinking that a few meters of sea level rise will not happen for centuries, so who cares? Well, first, you don’t know how long it will take any more than anyone else does. Scientists who study these things have been shortening the time scale with almost every study. But forget about that. Are you a patriotic American? Did the founding fathers work out a Constitution that would only apply in their lifetimes, or during the lifetimes of their children? Did god tell Moses that the 10 commandments have an expiration date? Did Jesus die for the sins of people who he knew, AND NOT YOU???? I should mention that a lot of people around here are religious, though frankly, half the talks I give are to groups of godless heathens of which I am a member. But the point still stands. Timing is not everything. Timing is just an excuse.

I don’t think the goal of climate activists should necessarily be to convince everyone to get on board and stop being dumb about global warming. For one thing, that will never happen. Rather, the goal of climate activists should be to make addressing climate change – which primarily means keeping the fossil Carbon in the ground – normal, part of our social and governmental responsibility, and to do so soon. Most people these days are pretty ignorant about the Ozone Layer, yet somehow we are mostly taking care of the ozone layer, not because we got everyone on board, but because we made taking care of the ozone layer national and international law and set up systems to do that. Climate change is a much bigger challenge, or really, a large number of individual challenges many of which are very big. But we have to meet those challenges with methods and approaches that work and changing human psychology – making humans be something other than bowls of Jell-O – is not going to work in time to matter, if at all. But, getting some more people on board by addressing the psychology of belief, as it were, in the science, needs to happen to bring certain communities and factions to a tipping point.

Maybe everyone should move to the coast for a few years. Get their feet wet.

Talk on Climate Change and Religion

April 27th, I’ll be giving a talk hosted by Minnesota Atheists at the Maplewood Library, 3025 Southlawn Dr, Maplewood, Minnesota. Details are here.


You may attend any part of the meeting you wish, here’s the schedule:

1:00-1:15 p.m. – Social Time
1:15-1:45 p.m. – Business Meeting
1:45-2:00 p.m. – Break
2:00-3:30 p.m. – Talk by Greg Laden
4:00-whenever – Dinner at Pizza Ranch (1845 County Road D East, Maplewood MN)

This will be a talk about climate change focusing on current and challenging research questions that everyone needs to know about, as well as the relationship between climate change and religion.

Most of the important events in the Bible are linked to climate change. Genesis describes the creation of a planet with a rapidly changing climate. Noah helped all the animals and his family escape an epic case of sea level rise. We can guess that the seven years of lean following the seven years of abundance associated with the early days of the sons of Israel were a climate effect. The plagues and some of the other major events were a form of “weather whiplash.” Indeed, during the days of Moses, wildfires may have been more common, given the number of burning bushes reported for the time!

After all this you would think that mainstream Abrahamic religion would be on the forefront of climate change. And, since humans were in one way or another responsible for most of those Biblical events, one would expect to see widespread acceptance of Anthropogenic Global Warming in religious communities. The reality, however, is more complex than that.

There is a reason that the National Center for Science Education addresses both evolution and climate change curriculum in public schools. But don’t expect the link to be simple or straightforward. Historically, there has been almost as much denial of climate science from the secular community as from the religious community, a situation that has been changing only in recent years. We’ll look at the links, some overt, some more subtle, between efforts lead by the religious right to damage science education and parallel efforts to deny climate science, as well as efforts by Christian fundamentalists to support climate change science.

This talk will also address the most current thinking–in some cases rapidly changing thinking–about climate change. In particular, how does global warming affect weather extremes? Are the California Drought, recent major floods, and the recent visitation of the Polar Vortex acts of a vengeful god, random events, or the effects of climate change? While climate science is not sure, these are probably the result of one of the last two. And, increasingly, thinking among climate scientists is leaning strongly towards the global warming – weather whiplash link.

Another area of concern, and timely given that summer is (supposedly) on the way, is the problem of sea level rise caused by melting large masses of ice currently trapped in glaciers. Sea level rise is one of the issues many feel has not been adequately addressed by the well known IPCC, partly because of the discordance between the timing of important research and the production cycle of the IPCC reports.

Greg Laden writes about climate change, evolution, science education, and other topics at National Geographic Science Blogs and other venues. He is a trained biological anthropologist and archaeologist who has taught at several colleges and universities. Today he mostly engages in climate-change-related science communication. He has done a number of interviews and talks on these various topics for Minnesota Atheists and other groups in the area.

Abrupt Climate Change

First, let me note that if you are not a regular reader of Peter Sinclair’s “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” you should be.

Peter’s latest video is “Abrupt Climate Change, and the Expected Unexpected”

Senior Scientists discuss the potential for sudden disruptions of human and natural systems as a consequence of climate change.

Whatever you thought about sea level rise, it’s worse than you were thinking.

I’ve noted this before. Here is Peter Sinclair’s video on the topic:

The most sobering evidence of the planet’s response to greenhouse gases comes from the fossil record. New evidence scientists are collecting suggests that ice sheets may be more vulnerable than previously believed, which has huge implications for sea level rise.

Haiyan is an example of climate change making things worse

Update on Haiyan/Yolanda Death Toll

The final figures are not likely in but the numbers have stabilized and we can now probably put a number to the human toll of this storm that will not change dramatically in the future, at least in terms of orders of magnitude. The current “official” death toll in the Philippines from Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan is 6,009 with 1,779 missing and 27,022 injured, with the largest concentration of casualties in Eastern Visayas. This comes from a December 13th report of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which you can (probably) download here. If you do download it expect to see slightly different numbers as the report seems to be updated dynamically. Wikipedia, which references the same report, gives slightly different numbers (higher for dead and injured, same for missing). Regardless of these smaller changes, we can say that the total casualty number for this typhoon is well over 30,000 with over 6,000 dead. With so many people missing we may guess that the number dead is somewhat over 7,000.

A few days ago a major typhoon struck the Philippines and then Vietnam, with another smaller storm heading in roughly the same direction. At about the same time, a tropical cyclone hit Somalia and killed at least 100 people there. The United States is not unaffected by the impacts of large tropical storms. There is reason to believe that tragedies like these may become more common or more severe with climate change. We must first address the urgent needs of the people in the affected areas, but it is also true that events like these and the voices of the victims must drive our continued commitment to address climate change preemptively.

Yeb Saño, the Philippines’ negotiator at the UN Climate Talks, found himself in the position of addressing an international body about the damaging effects of climate change while his own family was living in the affected area. We should take our lead from him. When he gave his address to the gathered representatives from around the world, he announced a hunger strike on behalf of his people which he would continue until the UN group completed the job they had convened to do. Saño’s brother, along with his fellow citizens, was occupied with recovering the dead and helping the survivors while Saño himself sought international recognition of the climate crisis; he was moved to say, “The climate crisis is madness.”

The exact nature of future storms is uncertain, but there are four lines of scientific evidence that hurricanes will be more of a problem in the future than they were in the past.

First, sea levels continue to rise, so the same storm ten years from now vs. ten years ago will have significantly greater impact.  Sea level rise was a significant factor with Superstorm Sandy and Katrina, and was likely a factor in the high death toll and extensive damage caused by Haiyan.

Second, large storms are likely to produce more rain over a broader area because a warmer atmosphere contains more moisture; large storms will bring increased inland flooding, a major cause of damage, injury, and death in tropical storms and cyclones.

Third, increased sea temperatures may generate more intense storms.  This seems to have happened with Katrina and Haiyan; the sea surface temperature drives the storm’s formation, but in these two storms the sea was unusually warm at a greater depth, several meters, causing those storms to become much stronger than they otherwise might have been. Recent studies have shown a strong association between sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and the cumulative strength of the storms that happen in a given year.

Fourth, and less certain, is the possibility that there will be more hurricanes and typhoons. One of the best models for predicting past hurricane frequency predicts that this will happen in the future, and by the way, that model predicted the current relatively anemic Atlantic storm season with good accuracy.   Major tropical storms occur with highly varying frequency from year to year, so it is difficult to identify any trend over just a few decades for which there are good records, but the climate models are increasingly accurate and they suggest that globally we can expect an uptick in frequency.

It is often said that it is impossible to link a given weather event with climate change.  This is no longer true, if it ever was.  The typical climate for a region or a season tells us what weather is “normal.” Climate change is pushing us into a new normal; the climate has warmed, there is more energy in the atmosphere, the jet streams have changed their configuration and are thus more likely to stall weather patterns as happened this year in Calgary and Colorado. This is the new climate, and thus, there is a new normal for the weather in any given region or season.  It appears that the new normal is now, and will increasingly be in the future, one with a significantly greater threat of damage, injury, and death from major tropical storms and other severe weather events.

There are many approaches to addressing this problem, but most of them start with one initial step: stop denying the importance and reality of the accepted science of climate change. This is something individuals must do, the media must do, and politicians and policy makers must do.  This is something that must start now, and really, should have started years ago.

Bad storms have always happened. But, to ignore the fact that humans are making them worse is certainly, as Saño put it, “climate madness.”