Seas around the world are rising now at a rate of about 3.3 milimeters per year. This rate of rise is faster than at any time in the last 2,800 years. It’s accelerating. And already the impacts are being felt in the world’s most vulnerable coastal regions.
(Rates of global sea level rise continue to quicken. This has resulted in worsening tidal flooding for coastal cities like Miami, Charleston, New Orleans and Virginia Beach. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms.)
Sea Level Rise and Worsening Extreme Rainfall are Already Causing Serious Problems
Last week, New Orleans saw pumps fail as a heavy thunderstorm inundated the city. This caused both serious concern and consternation among residents. Begging the question—if New Orleans pumps can’t handle the nascient variety of more powerful thunderstorms in the age of human-caused climate change, then what happens when a hurricane barrels in? The pumps, designed to handle 1.5 inch per hour rainfall amounts in the first hour and 1 inch per hour rainfall amounts thereafter were greatly over-matched when sections of the city received more than 2 inches of rainfall per hour over multiple hours.
Higher rates of precipitation from thunderstorms are becoming a more common event the world over as the hydrological cycle is amped up by the more than 1 degree Celsius of temperature increase that has already occurred since 1880. And when these heavy rainfall amounts hit coastal cities that are already facing rising seas, then pumps and drainage systems can be stressed well beyond their original design limits. The result, inevitably, is more flooding.
(Dr Eric Rignot, one of the world’s foremost glacial scientists, discusses the potential for multimeter sea level rise due to presently projected levels of warming in the range of 1.5 to 2 C by mid to late Century.)
New Orleans itself is already below sea level. And the land there is steadily subsiding into the Gulf of Mexico. Add sea level rise and worsening storms on top of that trend and the crisis New Orleans faces is greatly amplified.
All up and down the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, climate change driven sea level rise and a weakening Gulf Stream are combining with other natural factors that can seriously amplify an ever-worsening trend toward more tidal flooding. It’s a situation that will continue to worsen as global rates of sea level rise keep ramping higher. And how fast seas rise will depend both on the amount of carbon that human beings ultimately dump into the Earth’s atmosphere and on how rapidly various glacial systems around the world respond to that insult (see discussion by Dr. Eric Rignot above).
Presently High and Rising Atmospheric Carbon Levels Imply Ultimately Catastrophic Sea Level Rise—How Soon? How Fast? Can We Mitigate Swiftly Enough to Prevent the Worst?
Presently, atmospheric carbon forcing is in the range of 490 parts per million CO2 equivalent. This heat forcing, using paleoclimate proxies from 5 to 30 million years ago, implies approximately 2 degrees Celsius of warming this Century and about 4 degrees Celsisus of warming long term. It also implies an ultimate sea level rise of between 60 and 180 feet over the long term. In other words, if atmospheric carbon levels are similar to those seen during the Miocene, then temperatures are also ultimately headed for those ranges. Soon to be followed by a similar range of sea level rise. In the nearer term, 1.5 to 2 C warming from the 2030s to late Century is enough to result in 20 to 30 feet of sea level rise.
Of course, various climate change mitigation actions could ultimately reduce that larger heat forcing and final related loss of glacial ice. But with carbon still accumulating in the atmosphere and with Trump and other politicians around the world seeking to slow or sabotage a transition away from fossil fuels, then it goes to follow that enacting such an aggressive mitigation will be very difficult to manage without an overwhelming resistance to such harmful policy stances.
(Antarctic ice loss through 2016. Video source: NASA.)
That said, warming and related sea level rise will tend to take some time to elapse. And the real question on many scientists’ minds is—how fast? Presently, we do see serious signs of glacial destabilization in both Greenland and West Antartica. These two very large piles of ice alone could contribute 34 feet of sea level rise if both were to melt entirely.
Meanwhile, East Antarctica has also recently shown some signs of movement toward glacial destabilization. Especially in the region of the Totten Glacier and the Cook Ice Shelf. But rates of progress toward glacial destabilization in these zones has, thus far, been slower than that seen in Greenland and West Antarctica. Present mass loss hot spots are in the area of the Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica and around the western and southern margins of Greenland.
(Greenland ice loss through 2016. Video source: NASA.)
With global temperatures now exceeding 1 C and with these temperatures likely to exceed 1.5 C within the next two decades, it is certain that broader heat-based stresses to these various glacial systems will increase. And we are likely to see coincident melt rate acceleration as more glaciers become less stable. The result is that coastal flooding conditions will tend to follow a worsening trend—with the most vulnerable regions like the U.S. Gulf and East Coasts feeling the impact first. Unfortunately, there is risk that this trend will include the sudden acceleration of various glaciers into the ocean, which will coincide with rapid increases in global rates of sea level rise. In other words, the trend for sea level rise is less likely to be smooth and more likely to include a number of melt pulse spikes.
Such an overall trend including outlier risks paints a relatively rough picture for coastal city planners in the 1–3 decade timeframe. But on the multi-decade horizon there is a rising risk that sudden glacial destabilization—first in Greenland and West Antarctica and later in East Antarctica will put an increasing number of coastal cities permanently under water.
Rapid Mitigation Required to Reduce Risks
The only way to lower this risk is to rapidly reduce to zero the amount of carbon hitting the atmosphere from human sources while ultimately learning how to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The present most rapid pathway for carbon emissions reductions involves an urgent build-out of renewable and non-carbon based energy systems to replace all fossil fuels with a focus on wind, solar, and electrical vehicle economies of scale and production chains. Added to various drives for sustainable cities and increasing efficiency, such a push could achieve an 80 percent or greater reduction in carbon emissions on the 2–3 decade timescale with net negative carbon emissions by mid Century. For cities on the coast, choosing whether or not to support such a set of actions is ultimately an existential one.
First published by the robertscribbler website, August 2017.