The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years. . .* * *
Ice sheets waxed and waned as the Earth cooled and warmed over the past 500,000 years. During the coldest ice ages, the Earth's average temperature was about ten degrees Fahrenheit colder than today. So much water was locked in the largest ice sheet, more than a mile thick and covering most of Canada and northern parts of the United States, that the sea level was 400 feet lower than today. The warmest interglacial periods were about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today and the sea level was as much as sixteen feet higher. ...
Warming can be predicted accurately based on knowledge of how Earth responded to similar levels of greenhouse gases in the past. (By drilling into glaciers to analyze air bubbles trapped under layers of snow, scientists can measure the levels of each gas in the atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. By comparing the concentrations of different isotopes of oxygen in these air bubbles, they can measure the average temperature of past centuries.) Climate models by themselves yield similar answers. However, the evidence from the Earth's history provides a more precise and sensitive measure, and we know that the real world accurately included the effects of all feedback processes, such as changes of clouds and water vapor, that have an effect on temperature.
How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.
Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.
A rise in sea level, necessarily, begins slowly. Massive ice sheets must be softened and weakened before rapid disintegration and melting occurs and the sea level rises. It may require as much as a few centuries to produce most of the long-term response. ...
The business-as-usual scenario, with five degrees Fahrenheit global warming and ten degrees Fahrenheit at the ice sheets, certainly would cause the disintegration of ice sheets. The only question is when the collapse of these sheets would begin. The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate. The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.
Rob Young and Orrin Pilkey argue here and in their book The Rising Sea "that governments and coastal managers should assume the inevitability of a seven-foot rise in sea level. This number is not a prediction. But we believe that seven feet is the most prudent, conservative long-term planning guideline for coastal cities and communities, especially for the siting of major infrastructure; a number of academic studies examining recent ice sheet dynamics have suggested that an increase of seven feet or more is not only possible, but likely. Certainly, no one should be expecting less than a three-foot rise in sea level this century."
The authors note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not assess the effect of the melting of the Greenland and Antartica ice shelves on sea level rise.
Given the complexities of forecasting how much the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to increases in global sea level, the IPCC chose not to include these giant ice masses in their calculations, thus ignoring what is likely to be the most important source of sea level rise in the 21st century. Arguing that too little was understood about ice sheet collapse to construct a mathematical model upon which even a rough estimate could be based, the IPCC came up with sea level predictions using thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of mountain glaciers outside the poles. Its results were predictably conservative — a maximum of a two-foot rise this century — and were even a foot lower than an earlier IPCC report that factored in some melting of Greenland’s ice sheet.
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In the 20th century, sea level rise was primarily due to thermal expansion of ocean water. Contributions of melting mountain glaciers and the large ice sheets were minor components. But most climate scientists now believe that the main drivers of sea level rise in the 21st century will be the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (a potential of a 16-foot rise if the entire sheet melts) and the Greenland Ice Sheet (a potential rise of 20 feet if the entire ice cap melts). The nature of the melting is non-linear and is difficult to predict.
Seeking to correct the IPCC’s failure to come up with a comprehensive forecast for sea level increase, a number of state panels and government committees have produced sea level rise predictions that include an examination of melting ice sheets. For example, sea level rise panels in Rhode Island and Miami-Dade County have concluded that a minimum of a three- to five-foot sea level rise should be anticipated by 2100. A California report assumes a possible 4.6-foot rise by 2100, while the Dutch assume a 2.5-foot rise by 2050 in the design of their tidal gates.
Given the growing consensus about the major sea level rise on the way in the coming century or two, the continued development of many low-lying coastal areas — including much of the U.S. east coast — is foolhardy and irresponsible.
Rising seas will be on the front lines of the battle against changing climate during the next century. Our great concern is that as the infrastructure of major cities in the industrialized world becomes threatened, there will be few resources left to address the dramatic impacts that will be facing the citizens of the developing world.
The ramifications of a major sea level rise are massive. Agriculture will be disrupted, water supplies will be salinized, storms and flood waters will reach ever further inland, and millions of environmental refugees will be created — 15 million people live at or below three feet elevation in Bangladesh, for example. Governments, especially those in the developing world, will be disrupted, creating political instability.
The most vulnerable of all coastal environments are deltas of major rivers, including the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Niger, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Nile, and Mississippi. Here, land subsidence will combine with global sea level rise to create very high rates of what is known as “local, relative sea level rise.” The rising seas will displace the vast majority of people in these delta regions. Adding insult to injury, in many parts of Asia the rice crop will be decimated by rising sea level — a three-foot sea level rise will eliminate half of the rice production in Vietnam — causing a food crisis coincident with the mass migration of people.
The Mississippi Delta is unique because it lies within a country with the financial resources to fight land loss. Nevertheless, we believe multibillion-dollar engineering and restoration efforts designed to preserve communities on the Mississippi Delta are doomed to failure, given the magnitude of relative sea level rise expected. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said in 2008 that it was an “ineluctable fact” that within the lifespan of some people alive today, “the vast majority of that land will be underwater.” He also faulted federal officials for not developing migration plans for area residents and for not having the “honesty and compassion” to tell Louisiana residents the “truth”: Someday, they will have to leave the delta. The city of New Orleans can probably be protected into the next century, but only at great expense and with little guarantee that future storms like hurricane Katrina will not inundate the city again.
Pacific and Indian Ocean atoll nations are already being abandoned because of the direct and indirect effects of sea level rise, such as saltwater intrusion into groundwater. In the Marshall Islands, some crops are being grown in abandoned 55-gallon oil drums because the ground is now too salty for planting. New Zealand is accepting, on a gradual basis, all of the inhabitants of the Tuvalu atolls. Inhabitants of Carteret Atoll have all moved to Papua, New Guinea. The forward-looking government of the Maldives recently held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the ultimate fate of their small island nation.
The world’s major coastal cities will undoubtedly receive most of the attention as sea level rise threatens infrastructure. Miami tops the list of most endangered cities in the world, as measured by the value of property that would be threatened by a three-foot rise. This would flood all of Miami Beach and leave downtown Miami sitting as an island of water, disconnected from the rest of Florida. Other threatened U.S. cities include New York/Newark, New Orleans, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa-St Petersburg, and San Francisco. Osaka/Kobe, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Nagoya are among the most threatened major cities outside of North America.
Preserving coastal cities will require huge public expenditures, leaving smaller coastal resort communities to fend for themselves. Manhattan, for example, is likely to beat out Nags Head, North Carolina for federal funds, a fact that recreational beach communities must recognize when planning a response to sea level rise.
Twelve percent of the world’s open ocean shorelines are fronted by barrier islands, and a three-foot sea level rise will spell doom for development on most of them — save for those completely surrounded by massive seawalls. Impacts in the United States, with a 3,500-mile long barrier island shoreline extending from Montauk Point on Long Island to the Mexican border, will be huge. The only way to preserve the barrier islands themselves will be to abandon them so that they may respond naturally to rising sea level. Yet, most coastal states continue to allow massive, irresponsible development of the low-lying coast.
Ironically, low-elevation Florida is probably the least prepared of all coastal states. Hundreds of miles of high rises line the state’s shoreline, and more are built every year. The state pours subsidies into coastal development through state-run insurance and funding for coastal protection. If a portion of those funds were spent adapting to sea level rise rather than ignoring it, Florida might be ready to meet the challenge of the next century. Let’s hope the state rises to the challenge.