Cover Story - January 8, 2014
Can we rise to the challenge of rising sea levels
San Mateo County is "ground zero" for economic devastation, but entire region is threatened
by Dave Boyce
Imagine a darkened bedroom around midnight. You're lying there in the silence waiting for sleep to come. From the direction of the closet comes a soft scuffling noise. Curious and maybe a bit alarmed, you sit up, but carefully; you don't want to draw attention to your presence. Holding your breath, you wait, your head at a slight angle, the better to hear whatever it is.
There the noise is again, and again. It rattles the sliding door. It sounds bigger than a mouse, and unafraid. You're the adult in the room. Now what? Panic? Quietly call 9-1-1, silly though your complaint may sound? Or lock the closet and bedroom doors, go downstairs, break out the cheese and crackers and turn on the TV?
This is roughly where we find ourselves in San Mateo County. The monster in the closet is rising sea level, an issue that humanity will be dealing with for at least the next 1,000 years, climate scientists say. Ocean levels are expected to rise 2 to 3 feet by the year 2100.
If steps are not taken in San Mateo County, salt water will cover the runways of San Francisco International Airport, flood the access points to the Dumbarton and San Mateo bridges, and threaten about $24 billion of infrastructure and property, including major corporations and the homes of about about 110,000 residents.
This catalog of consequences came up for discussion at a Dec. 9 conference at the College of San Mateo. About 300 people attended, including academics, elected officials, public works staff and members of the environmental community, said state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park). Mr. Gordon shared conference-hosting duties with U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and county Supervisor Dave Pine, whose district includes the airport.
Among the experts invited to talk: John Englander, an oceanographer; Will Travis, a former executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC); Larry Goldzband, the current BCDC executive director; Maximilian Auffhammer, a professor of environmental economics at the University of California at Berkeley; and Julian Potter, the chief of staff at SFO.
The seas are warming faster than at any time in the last 500 million years, and it's been 120,000 years since sea levels have been as high as they are right now, Mr. Englander told the assembly. Using ice cores extracted from ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, scientists have tracked 420,000 years of trends in sea level, global temperature and heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide. It turns out that these three gradually, and in unison, change direction on 120,000-year intervals.
Such an interval is happening now, Mr. Englander said. According to a chart in his presentation, temperature and sea level are inconclusive, but not carbon dioxide. It is not only not showing indications of heading toward lower concentrations, it is rising straight up — literally off the chart.
How quickly sea level rises and its rate of rise depend significantly, but not exclusively, on future greenhouse gas emissions and the steps humanity takes to lower them, Mr. Englander said. There are wild cards: Massive quantities of methane lie frozen on ocean floors; if the water warms to the point at which that methane begins freely bubbling up to the surface, warming would accelerate dramatically.
In any case, humanity needs to get itself organized.
Let's get regional?
Eleven Burlingame hotels serving the airport sit within a stone's throw of the water. San Mateo County has nine waste-water treatment plants at sea level. U.S. 101 and Caltrain are at sea level, as are the corporate campuses of Oracle, Facebook and Genentech. As are Santa Clara County's Google and Intuit, Yahoo and Lockheed Martin, Cisco and Intel, according to a map presented at the conference.
Is Silicon Valley capable of organizing for the betterment of the future of the Bay Area? As an entrepreneurial and venture capital magnet with renowned universities, high-performing school districts, unrivaled good weather, and secluded living in wealthy bedroom communities, it's become a multifaceted economic powerhouse that more or less built itself. And rebuilds itself with each high-tech wave. Who needs regionalism?
And who needs California? How will the high-tech community respond to literal waves washing up on corporate campuses, on transportation infrastructure, on low-lying communities where employees live? Does technology somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and come to the rescue? It hasn't so far. Or does the powerhouse wind down as corporate loyalty to the region evaporates and the simple step of moving inland starts making sense? Centers of innovation in Texas, Illinois, North Carolina and elsewhere would be calling. Google is setting up operations on barges.
Perhaps it's time that attention be paid. But by whom? And what will it take to get their attention? The threat is similar to that of a major earthquake, but it's incremental rather than sudden. It also hasn't happened, not only in San Mateo County but in 7,000 years of recorded human history. The remedies, including wetland rehabilitation, levees and sea walls, will be expensive and perhaps daunting in terms of getting buy-in from the tax-paying public.
With San Mateo and Santa Clara counties as the traditional geese laying the high-tech golden eggs, what is the role of the other seven Bay Area counties in a mutual aid situation? Losses along the San Mateo County coast and bay side would be 39 percent of total Bay Area losses — essentially "ground zero," Mr. Travis of BCDC said.
"It's uncharted territory and there's no point … in just becoming angry or finding blame," Mr. Englander said. "It's like anything else; it's reality. While we may want to slow (emissions), we really need to begin to deal with the symptoms and what it means for how we live."
"It's the one thing that we need to plan for that's going to change everything and that we have no prior experience with, and that's what makes it different" he said. "We need to put sea-level rise in context and begin to envision a different world."
For years, efforts to slow global warming and climate change have focused on mitigation — lowering emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat in the atmosphere rather than letting it dissipate into frigid outer space. Adaptation to climate change was the focus on Dec. 9. Not that mitigation is unimportant, but that it is unrealistic to expect it to work in time.
To move toward adaptation, a collaborative conversation among local governments, nonprofit and for-profit organizations should begin in San Mateo County as it began two years ago in Alameda County, said Larry Goldzband of BCDC. The objective of Alameda County's Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) program: a measurable strengthening of resilience to climate change among neighborhoods, cities, counties and regions.
"We're doing this collaboratively in a non-regulatory way so that folks … will actually understand what will end up happening in their neighborhoods and can actually plan for it," Mr. Goldzband said. "ART is successful because it's non-threatening (and) it is non-regulatory (and) it is a flagship program nationally." It doesn't scare people into paralysis, but educates them to enable positive thinking, he added.
People need to understand what the projections of sea-level rise mean for day-to-day lives, said Maximilian Auffhammer, the UC Berkeley professor of environmental economics. It's a matter of asking people to incur costs now for a return later.
The threat is not necessarily decades away, he said. Higher sea levels amplify the flooding potential of severe storms, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated on the East Coast. Changes at the local level such as allowing homeowners to elevate their homes and rezoning areas vulnerable to extreme weather events are worthy of consideration, he said.
SFO will be reaching out to its immediate neighbors, including Millbrae and Burlingame, to talk about strengthening the defenses around the airport's 8-mile circumference, said Ms. Potter, the SFO chief of staff. The airport has a $4.2 billion construction project going on and expects to create 36,000 jobs in the next decade, she said. "We're investing for the Bay Area, for jobs, for the economy." The airport recently paid $367 million in taxes on annual revenues of $5.5 billion, she said.
In Washington, D.C., a wellspring of federal assistance as well as a nexus of red tape and the province of skilled lobbyists, clout is currency. Conference panelists recommended establishing a federally funded county flood control district, as has been done in Sacramento. Congresswoman Speier said that would be a priority when she returned to Congress.
Wetlands, and their ability to absorb flood water and wave energy, are crucial, said Mr. Goldzband and Mr. Travis, his predecessor at BCDC. "Wetlands are about as close to magic as you're ever going to get when you're dealing with flooding," Mr. Travis said. "The wider the wetland is at the front, the lower the levee can be at the back."
There are limits. "Even if we find the necessary money to build all the levees, all the sea walls, all the pumps and all the infrastructure, we have to acknowledge that sea level will continue to get higher at an ever-accelerating rate in the future," Mr. Travis added. "So eventually, we won't be able to protect everything exactly the way it is today. At some point, levees aren't viable." At that point, we should look to the Dutch for lessons on how to live with high sea levels, Mr. Travis said.
"The fact that we encourage people to live and build in flood plains is, I think, problematic," Supervisor Pine said. "What has been a 100-year (flood) event could easily become a 10- or 20- or 30-year event. I think we need to start moving, like the Dutch, towards a longer time horizon."
Posted by Michael S,
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2014 at 10:26 am
Nils-Axel Mörner was head of paleogeophysics and geodynamics at Stockholm University (1991-2005), president of the INQUA Commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution (1999-2003), leader of the Maldives sea level project (2000-11), chairman of the INTAS project on geomagnetism and climate (1997-2003). He said:
"As someone with some expertise in the field, I can assure the low-lying countries that this is a false alarm. The sea is not rising precipitously. I have studied many of the low-lying regions in my 45-year career recording and interpreting sea level data. I have conducted six field trips to the Maldives; I have been to Bangladesh, whose environment minister was claiming that flooding due to climate change threatened to create in her country 20 million 'ecological refugees'. I have carefully examined the data of 'drowning' Tuvalu. And I can report that, while such regions do have problems, they need not fear rising sea levels.
My latest project was a field expedition to India, to the coast of Goa, combining observations with archeological information. Our findings are straightforward: there is no ongoing sea level rise. The sea level there has been stable for the last 50 years or so, after falling some 20cm in around 1960; it was well below the present level in the 18th century and some 50 to 60cm above the present in the 17th century. So it is clear that sea levels rise and fall entirely independently of so-called 'climate change'.
Explaining this to the public can be very hard. There are so many misconceptions about sea levels, not least that they are constant throughout the world. In fact, there are big variations by as much as two metres. You need to think not of a constant, level surface, but of an agitated bath where the water is slopping back and forth. This is a dynamic process. In 900 ad, for example, the high level was in Tanzania and the low was in Peru; a century later this had reversed. It is also often forgotten that while sea levels may rise and fall ('eustasy'), so too may the land mass itself ('isostasy').
Today, all people talk about is the sea level because it coincides with the IPCC's (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) narrative about melting icesheets, diminishing glaciers and man-made global warming. This leads to confusion over cases such as Bangladesh, whose plight is the exact opposite of the one claimed by environmental lobbyists and the IPCC.
Bangladesh is cursed because of rain over the Himalayas. This has nothing to do with the sea. It is also cursed because of the cyclones which push water inland. Again, this has nothing to do with the sea. Bangladesh is cursed because about half of its land mass lies less than eight metres above sea level making it highly vulnerable to coastal flooding. But this has always been the fate of delta regions: it has little if anything to do with 'climate change'.
Two years ago, I visited the Sundarban delta area in Bangladesh and was able to observe clear evidence of coastal erosion, but no rise in sea level. In fact it has been stable there for 40 to 50 years. One way to tell this is by examining the mangrove trees, whose horizontal root systems now hang some 80cm above the mudflats as a result of erosion.
But the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report (2007) tells a different story about sea levels worldwide and is worth quoting in some detail: 'Even under the most conservative scenario, sea level will be about 40cm higher than today by the end of 21st century and this is projected to increase the annual number of people flooded in coastal populations from 13 million to 94 million. Almost 60 per cent of this increase will occur in South Asia.'
This is nonsense. The world's true experts on sea level are to be found at the INQUA (International Union for Quaternary Reseach) commission on Sea Level Changes and Coastal Evolution (of which I am a former president), not at the IPCC. Our research is what the climate lobby might call an 'inconvenient truth': it shows that sea levels have been oscillating close to the present level for the last three centuries. This is not due to melting glaciers: sea levels are affected by a great many factors, such as the speed at which the earth rotates. They rose in the order of 10 to 11cm between 1850 and 1940, stopped rising or maybe even fell a little until 1970, and have remained roughly flat ever since.
So any of the trouble attributed to 'rising sea levels' must instead be the result of other, local factors and basic misinterpretation. In Bangladesh, for example, increased salinity in the rivers (which has affected drinking water) has in fact been caused by dams in the Ganges, which have decreased the outflow of fresh water.
Even more damaging has been the chopping down of mangrove trees to clear space for shrimp farms. In one area, 19 square miles of mangrove vegetation in 1988 had by 2005 decreased to barely half a square mile. Mangrove forests offer excellent protection against the damage of cyclones and storms, so inevitably their systematic destruction has drastically increased local vulnerability to these problems.
At Tuvalu in the Pacific, I found no evidence of flooding despite claims in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth that it was one of those 'low-lying Pacific nations' whose residents have had to 'evacuate their homes because of rising seas'. In fact the tide gauge of the past 25 years clearly shows there has been no rise.
But the best-known 'victim' of rising sea levels is, without doubt, the Maldives. This myth has been boosted by the opportunism of Mohamed Nasheed, who stars in a new documentary called The Island President. The film's tagline is 'To save his country, he has to save our planet'. It is a depressing example of how Hollywood-style melodrama has corrupted climate science. Nasheed has been rehearsing his lines since being elected in 2009. 'We are drowning, our nation will disappear, we have to relocate the people,' he repeatedly claims.
If this is what President Nasheed believes, it seems strange that he has authorised the building of many large waterside hotels and 11 new airports. Or could it perhaps be that he wants to take a cut of the $30 billion fund agreed at an accord in Copenhagen for the poorest nations hit by 'global warming'? Within two weeks of Copenhagen, the Maldives foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed wrote to the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to express support for the accord.
The IPCC's Fourth Assessment claimed that 'there is strong evidence' of sea level rising over the last few decades. It goes as far as to claim: 'Satellite observations available since the early 1990s provide more accurate sea level data with nearly global coverage. This decade-long satellite altimetry data set shows that since 1993, sea level has been rising at a rate of around 3mm yr1, significantly higher than the average during the previous half century. Coastal tide gauge measurements confirm this observation, and indicate that similar rates have occurred in some earlier decades.'
Almost every word of this is untrue. Satellite altimetry is a wonderful and vital new technique that offers the reconstruction of sea level changes all over the ocean surface. But it has been hijacked and distorted by the IPCC for political ends.
In 2003 the satellite altimetry record was mysteriously tilted upwards to imply a sudden sea level rise rate of 2.3mm per year. When I criticised this dishonest adjustment at a global warming conference in Moscow, a British member of the IPCC delegation admitted in public the reason for this new calibration: 'We had to do so, otherwise there would be no trend.'
This is a scandal that should be called Sealevelgate. As with the Hockey Stick, there is little real-world data to support the upward tilt. It seems that the 2.3mm rise rate has been based on just one tide gauge in Hong Kong (whose record is contradicted by four other nearby tide gauges). Why does it show such a rise? Because like many of the 159 tide gauge stations used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it is sited on an unstable harbour construction or landing pier prone to uplift or subsidence. When you exclude these unreliable stations, the 68 remaining ones give a present rate of sea level rise in the order of 1mm a year.
If the ice caps are melting, it is at such a small rate globally that we can hardly see its effects on sea level. I certainly have not been able to find any evidence for it. The sea level rise today is at most 0.7mm a year though, probably, much smaller.
We must learn to take the environmentalists' predictions with a huge pinch of salt. In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme predicted that climate change would create 50 million climate refugees by 2010. That was last year: where are those refugees? And where are those sea level rises? The true facts are found by observing and measuring nature itself, not in the IPCC's computer-generated projections. There are many urgent natural problems to consider on Planet Earth tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions not least among them. But the threat of rising sea levels is an artificial crisis.