Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World
Published by Black Inc, 2018
During the last interglacial 120,000 years ago, when the global temperature was similar to what it is today, sea levels were 20-30 feet (6-9m) higher than they are now (p.10). This is just one of the bits of information in this book which made me realise that rising sea levels could well turn out to be the most devastating impact of climate change. But Goodell also holds out the possibility that perhaps we could learn to live with water.
A critical issue is how fast it will happen, for that will determine whether or not we will be able to adapt our coastal cities and towns or relocate populations and infrastructure. Again history can give us a clue: at the end of the last ice age seas rose by 1 ft (0.3m) per decade. In Florida, with its flat topography, the sea moved inland by 500-600 ft (150-180m) and a mile of coastline was lost per decade (p.19). Could we cope with these rates of change?
The rise in sea level during the 20th century of 6 inches (15 cm) was mostly due to warming of the oceans (p.10) but as the world warms further the main contribution will be from melting of the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers. For us in the northern hemisphere it is melting in the Antarctic that we most need to worry about, whereas loss of the Greenland glaciers will have a greater impact on the other side of the world (p.55). This is because the huge mass of these glaciers exerts a gravitational pull raising local sea levels. As the glaciers melt this effect will diminish so local sea levels will fall, pushing up the sea level on the other side of the world (p.55). The distribution of water in the oceans is also affected by ocean currents. For example, the Gulf Stream currently carries surface water away from the East coast of the USA. As the Gulf Stream weakens (caused by the influx of fresh water from melting glaciers into the sea South of Greenland) this effect will lessen, raising sea levels along the East Coast, where, in consequence sea level rise will be much greater than the global average (p.63).
The Antarctic glaciers are about seven times bigger than the Greenland ones. If they melted global sea levels would rise by 200 ft (60m) on average, whereas the Greenland glaciers could increase sea levels by 22 ft (nearly 7m). It takes time for ice to melt; thousands of years for the huge mass in Antarctica (p.52). However, recent events have made scientists think that it could happen much sooner than they once thought. First, there was the unexpected collapse of the Larsen B Ice sheet in Antarctica in 2002. The Antarctic ice sheets are sea ice, so their melting does not contribute to sea level rise, but they hold back the glaciers behind them, which terminate below sea level. Without the ice sheets the glaciers are free to slide into the sea (p.53). The Antarctic ice sheets and glaciers are melting from the bottom, due to rising sea temperatures, whereas the Greenland glaciers are melting on the surface: a second surprise was in 2012 when, during unusually warm weather, surface melting of ice in Greenland occurred over the whole expanse of the ice, including at high elevations – previously only ice further down had melted (p.50). It is thought that this was in part due to the deposition of soot from massive wildfires that summer in Colorado, the black soot increasing the amount of heat absorbed by the surface of the ice (p.66).
A paper on the 2012 Greenland melt was published in 2013, too late to influence the 2013 IPCC report that year which informed the 2015 Paris Climate negotiations. The 2013 IPCC report considered that the maximum sea level rise by 2100 is likely to be 3 feet 2 inches (just under 1m). In contrast a 2015 paper by James Hansen of NASA, which took into account the Greenland melt of 2012 as well as new information about the rate of change of the Antarctic ice sheets, considered that sea level rise by 2100 could be as much as 9 feet (2.7 m). Goodell says,
“the difference between 3 feet and 6 feet is the difference between a manageable coastal crisis and a decades-long refugee disaster. For many Pacific island nations it is the difference between survival and extinction.” (p. 69).
Jeff Goodell recounts his travels around the world to places that are going to be affected by sea level rise. How well prepared they are for what is coming? He visits Venice and sees one bit of the planned MOSE barrier, designed to sit on the sea bed then be lifted into place to protect the Venice lagoon against tidal surges, which has been dubbed a “Ferrari on the seafloor”. It has been 50 years in the making, mired in corruption, cost overruns and years of delay. He goes to see the Maeslant Barrier on the outlet of the Rhine west of Rotterdam, accompanies President Obama on a visit to a village in Alaska that is being lost to the sea, goes to New York, New Jersey, the Norfolk naval base in Virginia, South Florida and to Lagos in Nigeria.
South Florida gets more pages than any other place he goes to. A world created by drainage and dredging, powered by nuclear energy, dominated by cars and sanitized by insecticides, it is an expression of the technological dominance of the industrial world. It is, he says, “a place that has been habitable only if you believe the premise that nature – the heat, the bugs, the alligators, and most of all, the water – can be kept at bay” (p.48). The business of Miami is property. Continual redevelopment and rising prices are vital to the local economy so it is no surprise that Goodell finds resistance to acknowledging the impact that sea level rise is going to have. One prominent developer, when cornered by Goodell at a social event, says that he is not worried because he believes that in twenty or thirty years someone is going to find a solution (p.93). Another, at an event hosted by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce about the economic impact of sea level rise seems to take it personally. When told by an academic that, in his opinion, sea levels will be 15ft higher by 2100, she exclaims
“This can't be a fear-fest! Why is everyone picking on Miami? .... It is happening all over the East coast, and the media is picking on Miami.” (p.98).
Another key point on the East coast of the USA visited by Goodell is the Norfork Naval base in Virginia, the biggest Naval base in the world. The coast here consists of flat, low lying land and already roads flood whenever there is a rainstorm at high tide. Four of the piers have been rebuilt in recent decades at a higher level, but the current management of the base says that the piers were rebuilt because they needed new piers, not to prepare for sea level rise. Their reluctance to talk about the importance of making them higher stems from the number of elected politicians who do not believe in climate change, and therefore do not want to spend money preparing for it: any spending labelled as being associated with the climate is liable to be cut. Norfolk may be in a sea level rise hotspot, but it is also in a ‘climate denial hotspot’, with a Republican dominated state legislature unwilling to spend the money needed to protect the roads from sea level rise. Without those roads the base would not be able to function as nobody would be able to get to it.
Goodell’s discussion of the vulnerability of the Norfolk base and many of the USA’s other military assets made me realize how sea level rise will not simply be a matter of the loss of coastal land to the sea, rather it has the has the potential to reshape power structures and trade patterns. Will the US be able to maintain its current global military dominance if the operation of its 704 coastal bases is compromised? What about global trade if critical port facilities are rendered unusable? The latter is not discussed by Goodell but is a question that his book raised for me.
Leaving aside denial and a blind technological optimism, there seem to be three possible responses of communities and governments to the coming rise of the water. One is to try and keep it out with big infrastructure projects: the Venice MOSE barrier, the sea wall planned for lower Manhatten, reinforced dunes off the New Jersey Shore. At most Goodell seems to think that such projects buy time. They are expensive, not very adaptable and take a long time to plan and build. By the time they are built sea level rise may make them obsolete. Behind flood defense walls people think they are safe, until a really big flood comes and overtops them or sweeps them away, causing catastrophic flooding. Meanwhile the water kept out by sea walls has to go somewhere else, potentially exacerbating flooding in other places.
The second response is retreat: redesigning coastal areas and moving people and infrastructure to higher ground. Goodell explores the challenges faced by such an approach in the USA with a discussion of Toms River on the New Jersey Shore, a seaside resort which was badly hit by Hurricane Sandy. Plans were put forward to shift the tourism economy away from reliance on the beach towards ecotourism in adjacent forested areas and to build new homes on higher ground. However, in the end Toms River was pretty much rebuilt as it was. The flood insurance system in the US, people’s resistance to change, along with climate denial, made for few incentives to rebuild differently.
A third response is to live on the water. Goodell visits the Mound Key Archaeological State Park, an island off Florida’s Gulf coast that had been the capital of the Calusa, a Native American tribe. The island is completely artificial, built out of discarded seashells. It was home to about 1000 people when the Spanish arrived and wiped them out with Small Pox. It had canals with locks to control the water and big water courts that functioned like a city square. The Calusa had to deal with hurricanes but probably did so simply by rebuilding after they had hit: they were used to a changing world. Goodell takes heart from this evidence that people have lived with water in the past, but notes that
“the Calusa didn’t have to worry about salt water corroding electrical wiring, or property values crashing, or nuclear power plants melting down as they got swamped by rising seas.”
For a modern day example of people living on the water Goodell visits the water slums of Lagos. Here a thriving community lives in houses on stilts, travelling around in boats. The people here are poor and resourceful, able to build their own houses, and raise them up if needed. They are not afraid on the water but of the government. There is good reason for this: after Goodell’s visit the government cleared and burned many of the waterfront slums, leaving tens of thousands homeless, saying that the people in them were kidnappers and thieves and good-for-nothings. In a rational world, says Goodell, it would be recognized that the slums offered a blueprint for how we could live in a world of rising seas.