The Rising Sea

All indications are that we should be alarmed about the future of sea level rise and should be doing something about it now.”  Orrin Pilkey and Rob Young, eminent coastal scientists, wrote their book The Rising Sea to provide substance for that alarm and to offer suggestions as to how we can plan ahead to reduce the severity of the impact of the rising sea.

The authors begin by reminding us that it’s not a distant prospect. They describe what is happening to Alaskan shoreline villages such as Kivalina and Shishmaref, atoll nations such as Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu, and the city of Venice, places already grappling with rising sea level.

Rising tide gauge data and an increase in coastal erosion along many of the planet’s shorelines provide clear evidence of the rising sea and of the warming of the planet. Not that the authors are simplistic about this. They recognise and discuss the function of tectonic changes and additions to or subtractions from the weight of the crust.  But there is plenty of evidence of an increase in the volume of water in the oceans, accelerating in response to global warming. Easier evidence to assemble, they note, than the measurement of global temperature trends.

Predictions of rise in the 21st century are dependent on what happens in the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, an area which the IPCC 2007 report felt unable to take into its compass, other than by commenting that the contribution from both of these ice sheets may be much larger than previously assumed.  Pilkey and Young do not offer predictions, but they note that some organisations in the US have begun to make their own, quoting for example a committee in one of Florida’s counties which speaks of a minimum of 1 to 1.5 metres. They further note the work of University of Colorado scientist Tad Pfeffer and colleagues who argued in a 2008 paper in Science for a range between 0.9 and 2.0 metres, and they describe Hansen’s understanding that the non-linear response of the ice sheets could mean a level higher than that, possibly even as much as 5 metres. Shoreline retreat, of great importance to human society, is difficult to predict.  It’s not a simple or uniform matter and they discuss some of the variable regional factors which have to be taken into consideration in any assessments.   Their conclusion is that coastal management and planning should assume ice sheet disintegration will continue and a 2 metre sea level rise by 2100 should be reckoned with. They describe this as a cautious and conservative approach.  All rubbish, of course, to the noisy minority of opinion they address in a chapter on what they call the sea of denial.

The later sections of the book are concerned with the impacts of rising sea level.  First on natural ecosystems. The coastal wetlands and coral reef ecosystems have long migrated back and forth along with changing sea level and attendant shoreline movement. But they haven’t before had to simultaneously cope with massive changes in the physical environment cause by human activities.  Their future is unprecedented. The biggest global obstacle to salt marsh movement, for instance, is shoreline development and agriculture. There is often little room for them to expand inland.  Many will disappear, a loss both environmental and economic as yet recognised by few governments.  Mangrove areas have already been significantly reduced globally, most recently by clearing for agriculture and aquaculture. Poverty in the developing world leveraged by greed in the developed world is the driver of their destruction. Coral reefs are threatened by more factors than sea level rise, but their need for sunlight means that they must either grow upwards or migrate to shallower water to survive rising seas.

The authors then turn to the impact of sea level rise on humans.  The principal nation-scale impacts are likely to include loss of land, flooding, increased storm surge vulnerability, accelerated erosion, increased salinization, loss of biodiversity, loss of aquaculture and fishery, damage to marine infrastructure, and tourist decline.  The countries with the biggest problems are the atoll nations; deltaic countries such as Egypt, the Nethlerlands, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar; and countries with large low-lying, heavily developed coastal plains such as the US, Brazil and China. (As an aside I note that the severe effects of climate change on the US and China may be our best hope that they will act decisively to reduce emissions, once, that is, denialism loses its remaining traction among their lawmakers.) The book details the specifics faced by some of those countries.  In Vietnam, for example, a one metre sea level rise will displace more than a tenth of the nation’s people, gobble up 12 percent of its land area, and reduce food output by 12 percent.  Turning to cities the book notes an OECD study ranking the most vulnerable cities in the world as measured by susceptibility of property to flooding.  Half of the top ten are American, headed by Miami.

A closer look at the Mississippi delta forms the substance of a chapter.  The authors describe  various proposals to restore and protect the Louisiana coast and are sympathetic to some of them, such as wetland restoration.  But the vast and costly restoration effort now being sold to the residents of Louisiana and the rest of the US they consider misleading and dangerous.  Conditions in southern Louisiana are likely only to get worse no matter how much money is spent. Global sea level rise is coming. Coastal managers need to begin developing a plan to relocate towns in the lower delta, in ways which will keep the communities together. The delta culture may be preserved, but not in place.

The final chapter is titled Sounding Retreat.  It focuses on how Western countries need to respond to the landward movement of the shoreline.  The authors identify three responses: abandonment of the beachfront and relocation of all buildings and infrastructure away from the retreating shoreline; protection of the shoreline with seawalls, groins, and suchlike; formation of an artificial beach by bringing in new sand. All are expensive, but the latter two are temporary and suitable only for small rises in sea level. (No problem for Bjorn Lomborg who estimates a 30 centimetre rise.) The implications of each of these approaches are discussed in some detail with reference to specific examples. Opposition to relocation often comes from those with vested interests, and Florida extraordinarily still permits the construction of high rise shoreline buildings, taking over the financial obligation since insurance companies have backed away from insuring coastal properties. But the authors consider that in many cases relocation of beachfront communities will be the most effective solution, especially in view of the tremendous effort that will be needed to protect exposed cities.

We’re for it, the authors warn. Reduction of emissions will not halt sea level rise in the short term.  If we’re wise we’ll plan ahead. The constructive discussions and examples in their easily understood book will assist those who want to get an initial understanding both of the possible magnitude of what faces us and of the kind of measures we will need to take to manage it with the least distress. The book is well worth attention.

29 thoughts on “The Rising Sea”

  1. Oh dear a misspoke. The Maldives are in the Indian Ocean. This refutes everything in the item, NOT.

    If I were going to be a pedant I would point out that the item was written by Bryan not Gareth.

    “On the mark as usual Stevie.”

    But I won’t as pedants are small minded people always looking for a gotcha.

    P.S. Nice write up Bryan. I look forward to reading the book.


  2. Yes, it looks like a very interesting read indeed.

    “Coral reefs are threatened by more factors than sea level rise, but their need for sunlight means that they must either grow upwards or migrate to shallower water to survive rising seas.”

    …this echoes relevant comment on WuWT today re record cold in Florida killing reef coral…

    As an aside, Fred Pearce has some uncompromising things to say re Phil Jones in the Guardian today…

      1. The point you seem to miss in the original artical Gareth is that Fred Pearce’s article that mikh linked to is very similar in tone to the Blog post by Poneke which you believe you took apart.

        In the article Fred Pearce makes many of the points that were raised here by people like myself about how the actions of the members of the CRU were appalling in terms of basic Scientific principles.

        For some reason your desire to be true to the Scientific evidence for AGW is meaning you are becoming an apologists for the sort of behaviour that someone like Fred Pearce can rightly condemn.

        Do you regard Fred Pearce as a denier now due to his views expressed in that first article?

        1. You might want to re-read Pearce. His take on the de Freitas affair is exactly the same as mine, and completely at odds with that adopted by Poneke and other cheerleaders for the denialists.

          I’m not apologising for anyone. But I will not accept that you can judge anyone on the contents of carefully selected and presented personal emails.

          If, at the end of all this, the process of peer review is improved, that will be a good thing. But — once again — the process is not the evidence. That’s out there in the published papers.

          I take it as you’re so keen to support Pearce here, you also now accept his view that the whole scandal is based on denier’s lies. If not, how you defend the actions of the people he lists in that article?

          1. If Pearce’s view that the whole scandal is based on denier’s lies why did he write a piece which used the very e-mails highlighted by bloggers such as Poneke to point out the serious flaws with the Scientific pactices of the members of the CRU?

            I think you are mistaking Pearce’s view about some Climate Change Skeptics arguments that state because the Scientists were flawed in their behaviour the Science is obviously flawed. That is obviously a logical fallacy not supported by facts.

            As I stated when you were discussing Poneke’s blog posting the issue here is not the underlying Scientific findings, which still hold up at this point in time, but the unprofessional attitude and behaviour of the key members of the CRU. In this view I am now joined by people such as Fred Pearce and Professor Beddington, amongst others, who agree that what was carried out was not good Scientific practice.

            Accepting this position does not mean the entire AGW case is blown out of the water. You should be able to expect, in fact you should demand, that those people gathering evidence in this area have the highest possible ethical standards. They didn’t and it has been truly disappointing to see people like yourself spend an awful lot of time defending them.

            1. I’m noting Pearce’s fierce criticism of those using the stolen emails to tell lies. Are you defending those lies and liars?

              Pearce’s article about Jones and China does not rely on the emails as its sole source: just one is used as an illustration. The article would stand if it were not used.

              My position is very simple: you cannot use the emails as your only evidence that anything is flawed, fatally or not.

              Meanwhile, the people who masterminded the theft of the emails must be very pleased that their campaign is still running so strongly. It’s a sideshow, a distraction, and adds nothing to our understanding of climate change.

            2. Ummmm…. so which one of the following passages from his article is he relying on the e-mails and which is he using other sources for his information?

              – “In March 2004, Jones wrote to ­Professor Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, saying that he had “recently rejected two papers”

              – “In another email exchange CRU scientist Dr Keith Briffa initiates what looks like an attempt to have a paper rejected.”

              – “Cook replied later that day: “OK, today. Promise. Now, something to ask from you.” The favour was to provide some data to help Cook review a paper that attacked his own tree-ring work”

              – “In March 2003, Mann discussed encouraging colleagues to “no longer submit [papers] to, or cite papers in” Climate Research”

              – “The emails show Mann debating with others what he should do. In March 2003, he told Jones: “I believed our only choice was to ignore this paper. They’ve already achieved what they wanted – the claim of a peer-reviewed paper”

              – “The emails reveal that when the journal failed to disown the paper, the scientists figured a “coup” had taken place, and that one editor in particular, a New Zealander called Chris de Freitas, was fast-tracking sceptical papers on to its pages.”

              I could go on but I’m a bit tired now.

              So isn’t he using the stolen e-mails in the way you described as being the wrong way to do so?

            3. So how about you comment on Fred Pearce’s following article then?


              This seems very similar in tone to Poneke’s blog post you dismissed completely as entirely without merit.

              The conclusions are different of course but only by a matter of degrees. Poneke overstepped the mark by claiming the CRU controlled the peer reviewed process while Pearce highlights that the CRU members tried to manipulate it.

  3. Pearse is no expert, so you are also cherry picking.
    BTW – there are a lot of cherries to pick as the harvest is good this year. The IPCC – the gift that keeps giving. IPCC – Alchemy & Voo Doo science lives on.

  4. “The Last Generation” ?

    An end of the world climatastrophe scenario Gareth ? Can’t see it getting to the best seller lists.

    This morning’s Herald editorial, which you may not have seen yet, gives a blast to Jim Salinger, the IPCC (of course), the WWF and by inference all those who peddle alarmist propaganda.

    “…Governments need dispassionate scientific assessments of it, not anecdotes, unchecked papers and agitators’ propaganda.

    The IPCC urgently needs new leadership and a return to strict scientific rigour if it hopes to be taken seriously again.”

    Hope there’s something in there, a word or two, to cheer you up. If not have a look at The Washington Times “…The hitch is that the man-caused catastrophic global warming theory is dead, and it needs to be buried.”

  5. The Guardian is showing its class and commitment to good quality journalism in the pieces by Fred Pearce and George Monbiot that are mentioned above. Both of these writers are very critical of Phil Jones and various others, and I recall that Monbiot was one of the first to call for Phil Jones’ resignation and to acknowledge the seriousness of the whole affair. The leaked emails showed that science can be a messy and tribal enterprise marked by rivalries and jealousies and so on.
    However – and this is something that Mikh, Steve Wrathall and co seem to have great trouble in getting their heads around – none of this undermines the views of Pearce and Monbiot that AGW is based on sound science, supported by a great diversity of evidence, and that we’re in trouble if we continue to ignore this.

    Can you imagine anyone in the denialist camp with this level of integrity and honesty?

    1. I have no idea about the denialist camp but I do know that various people on here, including Gareth, spent an awful lot of time trying to defend, or deflect the attacks on, the members of the CRU that Fred Pearce rightly criticised.

      1. Ok that’s say that Phil Jones is found guilty of withholding data and trying to circumvent the FOI Act what impact do you think this will have on science’s current understanding of the global temperature record?

  6. “Ok that’s say that Phil Jones is found guilty of withholding data and trying to circumvent the FOI Act what impact do you think this will have on science’s current understanding of the global temperature record?”

    None at all, Doug, as Hadley/CRU are only one of many climate research centres, and scientists don’t need to be saints in order to do good science.

    For example, Isaac Newton’s correspondence is full of alchemist mumbo-jumbo, but that does not invalidate Newtonian mechanics.

  7. “I have no idea about the denialist camp but I do know that various people on here, including Gareth, spent an awful lot of time trying to defend, or deflect the attacks on, the members of the CRU that Fred Pearce rightly criticised.”

    Well someone should. You think a court should only here the prosecution? We have a lot of quotes that are being bandied around without their context, lots of tut, tut, and very few bothering to look at the context. I’m not going to rehash – Gavin Schmidt has presented the context with great patience over at RealClimate, but I’m guessing those crowing about CRU hack arent interested in reading it.

    All completely irrelevant to the basic science as has been noted ad nauseum. Find me some counter published counter to
    and I might be impressed.

    1. Since the person responsible for the hack used sophisticated penetration method to hack and also to get into the Realclimate site, you would have to say that the probability is against a whistleblower. However whistleblower sounds more morally defensible to skeptic community and if you repeat something enough it becomes true, right?

  8. PS,
    whistleblower sounds more morally defensible to skeptic community and if you repeat something enough it becomes true, right?

    Quite possibly. Yet one is left wondering what kind of community would require ( or accept need of ) an excuse. Covering criminality in light of Penn’s finding on Mann..?

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