Coastal studies experts: “For coastal management purposes, a [sea level] rise of 7 feet (2 meters) should be utilized for planning major infrastructure”

Front-page NY Times piece on sea level rise gets it mostly right

The New York Times has a splashy front-page story on some of the latest research on sea level rise today.  The graphics above make clear the paper gets a big part of the story right — the latest science says we are facing 3 to 6 feet of sea level rise this century.

Kudos to the NYT for featuring such an important story.  Given that serious federal climate action is unlikely for years if not a decade or more, it is more incumbent on the media than ever to explain to the public what’s coming.

The story has its flaws, though.  For some reason the media — and many scientists — seem constitutionally incapable of explaining that inaction makes things much worse, that inaction greatly increases the chances of the worst impacts.  The NYT has usefully cited the work of Rahmstorf, but somewhat simplified and hence sanitized his graph:


Our current do-nothing or do-little path currently matches the A1F1 scenario (see “U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm“), where the midpoint SLR projection is nearly 5 feet.  That’s no surprise since the unrestricted emissions scenario can leads to a staggering warming where the ice is located (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).

So it is a tad frustrating that the NYT buries this crucial point in the final two paragraphs of this long article:

Climate scientists note that while the science of studying ice may be progressing slowly, the world’s emissions of heat-trapping gases are not. They worry that the way things are going, extensive melting of land ice may become inevitable before political leaders find a way to limit the gases, and before scientists even realize such a point of no return has been passed.

“The past clearly shows that sea-level rise is getting faster and faster the warmer it gets,” Dr. Rahmstorf said. “Why should that process stop? If it gets warmer, ice will melt faster.”

The key point is that we are woefully prepared for what is likely to come:

“I think we need immediately to begin thinking about our coastal cities “” how are we going to protect them?” said John A. Church, an Australian scientist who is a leading expert on sea level. “We can’t afford to protect everything. We will have to abandon some areas.”

Duh.  Triage.  It’s coming.

This NYT article give the answer to the question I posed Friday — AGU Climate Q&A Service won’t answer this Q: “Is current U.S. infrastructure adequate for sea level rise?” Is that prudent — or lame?

Key West and Galveston and probably New Orleans appear unsavable on our current emissions path, but what about Miami and Houston?  I’ll do a post on that subject later.

What should people plan for?  Obviously, it makes no sense to plan for the best case.  Most people are highly risk averse and spend a considerable amount of money planning for worst-case scenarios — that’s why they buy fire insurance and catastrophic health insurance.  Military and epidemiological planners routinely focus vast amounts of time and money around the worst-case scenarios.

Even if seas only rise, say 4 feet by 2100, then sea levels are likely to be rising 6 inches a decade or more at that point, probably for centuries, so again it makes little sense to plan for, say 2 to 3 feet of SLR, particularly when making big investments like, say, a new sewage treatment plant (or a major upgrade to an old one), which is going to last a very long time and not going to be easy to move.

As an aside, a 2009 study in Geophysical Research Letters found that “If Greenland’s ice melts at moderate to high rates, ocean circulation by 2100 may shift and cause sea levels off the northeast coast of North America to rise by about 12 to 20 inches (about 30 to 50 centimeters) more than in other coastal areas” (see here).

The NYT article notes:

One of the deans of American coastal studies, Orrin H. Pilkey of Duke University, is advising coastal communities to plan for a rise of at least five feet by 2100.

Since the NYT didn’t include a direct link to that claim or a direct quote, I went looking on Google, which turned up this op-ed piece from last November by Pilkey, “Rising sea levels: a strategy for N.C.“:

DURHAM — Western Carolina University’s Rob Young and I have argued that seas will rise at least 3 feet in this century and that, for coastal management purposes, a rise of 7 feet (2 meters) should be utilized for planning major infrastructure.

I have emailed Pilkey to find out the source of that discrepancy, but for now, I’m going with this as the headline quote.

I have three more issues with the article.  First, while the gratuitous quotes from the anti-science disinformers were kept to a minimum, the NYT should at least try to quote disinformers with relevant expertise:

Global warming skeptics, on the other hand, contend that any changes occurring in the ice sheets are probably due to natural climate variability, not to greenhouse gases released by humans….

John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who is often critical of mainstream climate science, said he suspected that the changes in Greenland were linked to this natural variability, and added that he doubted that the pace would accelerate as much as his colleagues feared.

For high predictions of sea-level rise to be correct, “some big chunks of the Greenland ice sheet are going to have to melt, and they’re just not melting that way right now,” Dr. Christy said.

As the link the NYT provides makes clear, Christy has no publications in this area.  His ‘expertise’  is in temperature trends and satellite measurements, but even there, how many times one has to be wrong before the media stops quoting you? (see “Should you believe anything John Christy and Roy Spencer say?“).

Second, the NYT asserts:

Certain measurements are so spotty for Antarctica that scientists have not been able to figure out whether the continent is losing or gaining ice.

In fact, while all such measurements have uncertainty, the literature is pretty clear that Antarctica has been losing mass in the past decade — at an accelerating rate, as Skeptical Science explains:

Figure 2 shows the ice mass changes in Antarctica for the period April 2002 to February 2009 (Velicogna 2009) . The blue line/crosses show the unfiltered, monthly values. The red crosses have seasonal variability removed. The green line is the best fitting trend.
Figure 2: Ice mass changes for the Antarctic ice sheet from April 2002 to February 2009. Unfiltered data are blue crosses. Data filtered for the seasonal dependence are red crosses. The best-fitting quadratic trend is shown as the green line (Velicogna 2009).

With the longer time series, a statistically significant trend now emerges. Not only is Antarctica losing land ice, the ice loss is accelerating at a rate of 26 Gigatonnes/yr2 (in other words, every year, the rate of ice loss is increasing by 26 Gigatonnes per year) It turns out that since 2006, East Antarctica has no longer been in mass balance but is in fact, losing ice mass (Chen 2009). This is a surprising result as East Antarctica has been considered stable because the region is so cold. This indicates the East Antarctic ice sheet is more dynamic than previously thought.

This is significant because East Antarctica contains much more ice than West Antarctica. East Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 50 to 60 metres while West Antarctica would contribute around 6 to 7 metres. The Antarctic ice sheet plays an important role in the total contribution to sea level. That contribution is continuously and rapidly growing.

I wrote about the Chen paper here (see Satellite data stunner: “Our data suggest that EAST Antarctica is losing mass”¦. Antarctica may soon be contributing significantly more to global sea-level rise”).  The study begins, “Accurate quantification of Antarctic ice-sheet mass balance and its contribution to global sea-level rise remains challenging, because in situ measurements over both space and time are sparse,” and it concludes:

Our results suggest that over the WAIS [West Antarctic ice sheet] (especially the ASE [Amundsen Sea Embayment]) there is accelerated ice loss since around 2005 and/or 2006, with the EAIS showing correlated changes of the same sign in this period, attributed to increased ice loss over EAIS coastal regions in recent years. Using a simple linear projection for the period 2006-2009, Antarctic ice loss rate can be as large as -220plusminus89 Gt yr-1. These new GRACE estimates, on average, are consistent with recent InSAR fluxes but, in contrast to previous estimates, they indicate that as a whole, Antarctica may soon be contributing significantly more to global sea-level rise.

Yes, a recent paper has questioned the full magnitude of some of the GRACE ice losses, but many leading experts have in turn questioned that work.  I suppose I will have to do a post on that.

Notwithstanding the NYT, the best science says that Antarctica is losing ice, and the ice loss is accelerating.

Third, one of the most puzzling statements in the entire piece is this:

The information problems are even more severe in Antarctica. Much of that continent is colder than Greenland, and its ice sheet is believed to be more stable, over all. But in recent years, parts of the ice sheet have started to flow rapidly, raising the possibility that it will destabilize in the same way that much of the world’s other ice has.

Notwithstanding the phrase “over all,” the WAIS has long been known it to be unstable, as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Initiative explains at length here. As I wrote in the “high water” part of my book:

Perhaps the most important, and worrisome, fact about the WAIS is that it is fundamentally far less stable than the Greenland ice sheet because most of it is grounded far below sea level. The WAIS rests on bedrock as deep as two kilometers underwater. One 2004 NASA-led study found that most of the glaciers they were studying “flow into floating ice shelves over bedrock up to hundreds of meters deeper than previous estimates, providing exit routes for ice from further inland if ice-sheet collapse is under way.” A 2002 study in Science examined the underwater grounding lines-the points where the ice starts floating. Using satellites, the researchers determined that “bottom melt rates experienced by large outlet glaciers near their grounding lines are far higher than generally assumed.” And that melt rate is positively correlated with ocean temperature.

The warmer it gets, the more unstable WAIS outlet glaciers will become. Since so much of the ice sheet is grounded underwater, rising sea levels may have the effect of lifting the sheets, allowing more-and increasingly warmer-water underneath it, leading to further bottom melting, more ice shelf disintegration, accelerated glacial flow, and further sea level rise, and so on and on, another vicious cycle. The combination of global warming and accelerating sea level rise from Greenland could be the trigger for catastrophic collapse in the WAIS.

And the WAIS Initiative notes:

A final, disturbing extension of West Antarctic collapse is that a substantial portion of the much-larger East Antarctic ice sheet would likely drain through the gap in the Transantarctic Mountains now occupied by the West Antarctic ice sheet. This would only increase the eventual magnitude of the change in sea level, further exacerbating the calamity.

So we have a cascading effect from Greenland to WAIS to EAIS.

For the record, a 2009 study in Science found that sea level rise from a collapse of the WAIS would likely be 25% higher for North America than previously estimated:

The catastrophic increase in sea level, already projected to average between 16 and 17 feet around the world, would be almost 21 feet in such places as Washington, D.C., scientists say, putting it largely underwater. Many coastal areas would be devastated. Much of Southern Florida would disappear.

And the WAIS is already in danger now:

So, yes, we can all hope that humanity somehow quickly becomes smart enough to stay at or below 450 ppm, and then returns to 350 ppm as quickly as possible, keeping overall sea level rise to below 3 feet this century.  But prudent planners should plan on 5 to 7 feet of SLR over the next 100 years.


44 Responses to Coastal studies experts: “For coastal management purposes, a [sea level] rise of 7 feet (2 meters) should be utilized for planning major infrastructure”

  1. Paulm says:

    NYT heading in the right direction. You would have thought they would have nailed it though, with all the recent flurry of data and information about the state of the ices.

  2. Tim L. says:

    We’re in deep Shimkus!

  3. Mike says:

    The print edition had another interesting story next this one. It was on how tobacco companies are interfering with efforts to regulate tobacco products around the world. The parallels with oil & coal companies is obvious.

  4. William T says:

    The problem with all these projections to 2100 is that it’s too easy to say “3 feet ain’t that much, they’ll just build a wall around each city. Get some Dutch engineers…” But then what? Another 3 feet or more in the next 100 years? With continued emissions it just keeps getting worse. You don’t build sea defenses if they’re going to be overrun in another 100 years or less.

    The worst of it is that too many people are in denial about the problem – “oh it’s just natural variation. We’ve seen it all before…” – thus denying any responsibility – when in fact the worst projections are dependent on continued growth in emissions. So to the extent that our current generation doesn’t take action to reduce emissions, WE are culpable for the future destruction that our actions will occur.

  5. Bob Lang says:

    The sea-level rises according to the different IPCC scenarios quoted by John Holdren only last week at an MIT lecture are quite a bit higher than those quoted above, unless I’m missing something:

    His sea-level slide is shown about 2/3 into Part 2 at this video link (you can skip the long-winded intro):

  6. People need to understand that we are behaving like a virus, growing in and exponential loop and quickly eroding the resilience of the planet — which is already responding in kind.

    It is importante, therefore, that more stories on climate change make it to the front page of newspapers all around the world.

  7. Prokaryotes says:

    NYT “… it could just as easily be an underestimate as an overestimate.”

    NYT “The reading that the scientists obtained a few weeks ago, of 40 degrees near the bottom of the fjord, fit a broader pattern that researchers have been detecting in the past few years.

    Water that originated far to the south, in warmer parts of the Atlantic Ocean, is flushing into Greenland’s fjords at a brisk pace. Scientists suspect that as it melts the ice from beneath, the warm water is loosening the connection of the glaciers to the ground and to nearby rock.

    The effect has been something like popping a Champagne cork, allowing the glaciers to move faster and dump more ice into the ocean. Within the past decade, the flow rate of many of Greenland’s biggest glaciers has doubled or tripled.

    … unusual earthquakes were emanating from the Greenland glaciers as they dumped the extra ice into the sea. “It’s remarkable that an iceberg can do this, but when that loss of ice occurs, it does generate a signal that sets up a vibration that you can record all across the globe,”

    … most of the extra heat being trapped by human greenhouse emissions is going not to warm the atmosphere but to warm the ocean, and as it warms, the water expands.

    Calculations about the effect of a three-foot increase suggest that it would cause shoreline erosion to accelerate markedly. In places that once flooded only in a large hurricane, the higher sea would mean that a routine storm could do the trick.

    “Beyond a hundred years out, it starts to look really challenging,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “You start thinking about every coastal city on the planet hiding behind a wall, with storms coming.”

    After a decade of budget cuts and shifting space priorities in Washington, several satellites vital to monitoring the ice sheets and other aspects of the environment are on their last legs, with no replacements at hand. A replacement for ICESat will not be launched until 2015 at the earliest.

    “We are slowly going blind in space,” said Robert Bindschadler, a polar researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who spent 30 years with NASA studying ice.

    The information problems are even more severe in Antarctica. Much of that continent is colder than Greenland, and its ice sheet is believed to be more stable, over all. But in recent years, parts of the ice sheet have started to flow rapidly, raising the possibility that it will destabilize in the same way that much of the world’s other ice has. ”

    Another thing is that due to gravitational differences throughout the planet, sea level rise affects are much more variable and pronounced. Why is this info missing?

    Seems like the NY Times article is based on these “2009” estimates. And Rahmstorf now points out that it is very likely that the process will happen much faster than previously thought.

    Even if we could freeze-frame the atmosphere as it is today, sea levels would still rise by 25 metres, says the latest study into the effects of climate change on melting ice sheets.

    Eelco Rohling of the UK National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton and colleagues reconstructed sea level fluctuations over the last 520,000 years and compared this to global climate and carbon dioxide levels data for the same period. They found a tight coupling between carbon dioxide and sea level rise.

    Based on this relationship, the team calculated that if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were fixed at current levels, temperature rises over the next couple of millennia would eventually drive sea levels up by 25 metres.

  8. Aaron Lewis says:

    The IPCC models over stated the stability of the Arctic Sea Ice, and a review of the obvious physics suggests that those models also overstate the stability of the ice sheets by a relatively similar amount.

    Obvious physics would include :
    Heat transfer from ocean to ice by water vapor and direct water contact, advection of heat into the ice by water in moulins, temperature dependent strength of ice as the ice approaches its melting point, and ice dynamics.

    Then, there is the fact that ice which appears to be solid, may in fact hold a substantial fraction of its heat of fusion and be ready to collapse under its own weight. Dr. Barber’s report of rotten Arctic Sea Ice also applies to ice shelves and land based ice.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Three points

    What ever the sea level rise this century, it is going to keep going up. Even if CO2 was stabilised at today’s figures we would eventually be looking at tens of meters above current sea level.

    The 2 meter rise is not the most pessimistic projection. The scary paleo evidence is that ice sheets can disintegrate fairly quickly is averaged over centuries, hiding some rapid short term effects.

    You have to add in storm surge, high tide, and wave ramping. Then add subsidence and uneven distribution of the sea level rise.

    Ports have to be at sea level, but with other infrastructure we should be considering higher is better.

  10. James Newberry says:

    Greenland Ice Cap: About 700,000 cubic miles of ice.

    Antarctic Ice Cap: About 7,000,000 cubic miles of ice.

    We are playing with fire. We are addicted (especially via economic distortions called subsidies) to mining the lithosphere for setting on fire.

    We have just had economic meltdown from FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) and are now headed for ecologic meltdown.

    Oil is not an energy resource. It is a resource of matter (energy efficiency undefined, i.e. worse than zero, much worse).

    One might say we are financially underwater and soon to be literally.

    One nation, under Fraud, with liberty and justice . . .

  11. Robert Brulle says:

    The one item that I found most interesting is that when you compare the sea level rise map and the politicians who represent those areas, you find a perfect negative correlation. The more the future impacts, the less the politicians believe in climate change. I figure they will change their position as sea level makes serious encroachments on the state’s economic activities.

  12. dp says:

    i was just recently chuckling that this 2007 study was based on 1m rise (and 2006 estimates).

  13. dp says:

    if 7 feet is the target now and 3 feet was the target 3 years ago, the trend line there suggests that the national governments have reneged on their responsibility to protect localities’ interests at the global level.

  14. fj3 says:

    The New York Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) came out with a report/book in May (nearly 9 months late).


    Free online download

  15. J. Bob says:

    Checked with some relatives over in “Old Town” Bergen Norway. Seems as long as they can remember (60+ years), sea level at the piers has been about the same.

    Also checked the sea level station data for Bergen at PSMSL:

    It would appear the sea level has been relatively constant. The current level is also below the 1920’s levels, and well below the 1880’s levels. From the shape of the data, geological “uplifting” would not be a factor.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Triage? Don’t even try. By 2060 CE agriculture comes to an end, most paces, and civilization collapses:

  17. Mike says:

    I don’t know how reliable this report on sea level rise in West Africa is. It does not cite studies to back up its claim that the sea level rise in the region is do to global climate change and not regional issues. With that caveat, here is the link:

  18. Pbo says:

    Bob@15: The geological uplift in Bergen is about 2mm pr. year – so the relative sea level was sinking in Bergen up to about 1980. After 1980 the SLR in Bergen has been positive – as your link clearly shows:

  19. 350 or we die says:

    Perhaps when every place on the globe has experienced a climate disaster, then the politicians will act.

    But I doubt it, so we need to figure out another way, one that does not depend on idiot politicians and federal policy, starting with insurance companies and other sectors that cannot afford to ignore the obvious, then building from there.

  20. paulm says:

    I have to subscribe to the disintegration of the ice sheets with a ~1C+ rise.
    It just seems intuitive, obvious really, regardless of what the official speak is….

    Hansen on, Scientific reticence and sea level rise [PDF]

  21. Richard Miller says:

    Pilkey and Young wrote a decent book called The Rising Sea. They also include Hansen’s 5 meter sea level rise as a possibiliy in their review of the scientific literature. They point out how clueless Florida is in the way they keep buidling near their shoreline.

  22. paulm says:

    Theres this one also in the NYT…

    I think that if you assume Stefan’s estimate is good then his upper limit is more likely as his method does not model ice sheet disintegration (as far as I can tell).

    This also could mean that sea levels could be much higher shortly after and that the rate of rise will be choppy.

  23. Robert Way says:

    “Yes, a recent paper has questioned the full magnitude of some of the GRACE ice losses, but many leading experts have in turn questioned that work. I suppose I will have to do a post on that.”

    Dr. Romm,
    See the SKS post here

    It at least “tries” to address the recent Wu et al (2010) paper.

  24. Bill Waterhouse says:

    As your comment notes, the NYT article ignores the GRACE satellite ice volume data for Greenland and Antarctica, which both show rapidly decreasing volume. Perhaps this is a bit of parochialism because this research is centered on the left coast at JPL and UC Irvine. Just attended a lecture by Eric Rignot of UCI reviewing the scary Greenland data at a UCI polar conference. A number of speakers mentioned that scientists who have been to the Arctic in the past few years and seen the reduction in ice first-hand are terrified about what is happening.

  25. J. Bob says:

    Pbo 18,
    comparing the Hadcrut3 temperature profile, and Bergen sea level, they do not seem to correlate, even if there was a constant 2 mm/yr uplift. In addition why should anything be different around 1980?

    According to Hadcrut3 global temp was on a local upward trend, and if the uplift trend is constant over the past say 100 years why would the Bergen sea level suddenly reverse it’s downward trend?

  26. Barry says:

    As Hansen points out in his book “Storms of my Grandchildren”, climate change not only raises sea levels but amplifies this rise during storms in several nasty ways. It is already happening.

    Bouys show the heights of the biggest waves in Pacific Northwest have been rising 4 inches per year…10 feet since 1970.

    USGS says strong El Ninos like in 1998 raised sea level in SF by 6 inches from “kelvin waves” and another 8 inches from thermal expansion of the warm El Nino waters in that area.

    Low pressure systems raise sea level 1cm for each 1mb of pressure drop. An all-time record low pressure system for western states moved through the west coast this january. In washington state the pressure fell 37mb below normal causing 14.5 inches of sea level rise from pressure drop alone.

    And of course the higher wind speeds will shove more water onshore.

    Combined the add-on effects of climate change can drive storm surge to new heights that are many feet above “sea level”.

    Studies are showing that storm damage heights are rising much higher than sea level rise.

    New Orleans wasn’t flooded by a small change in sea level. It was flooded by a monster storm that shoved water far beyond where it usually got shoved. As Hansen points out, that was a baby storm compared to what we are cooking up with our dirty and deadly fossil fuel burnout.

  27. William T says:

    J. Bob – easy answer – before 1980, sea level rise was 2mm/yr or less, so Bergen land uplift wins (apparent sea level there going down). After 1980 or there-abouts, sea level rise is greater than 2mm/yr (it’s now 3) so it beats land uplift and Bergen now sees small net sea level rise (~1mm/yr).

  28. Joe,

    I agree with your call for major infrastructure to be designed for a higher amount of SLR. 2m is probably quite appropriate for todays understanding for middliing infrastructure such as sewer systems. For longer term installations such as treatment works, major hospitals, new suburbs, I suspect a higher limit should be applied. Perhaps we need to define a system of design life to relate such long term development to SLR.

    I would suggest:
    Major roads: 100 years
    New Schools: 100 years
    Major Bridges: 200 years
    Major hospitals/Universities: 200 years
    New suburbs/towns: 300 years

    The current projections could be taken as:
    100 years = 1.2m
    200 years = 2.5m
    300 years = 5m

    The problem with this is that if we adopt a number (such as those above) we may find they are out of date in only a few years as we learn more about the coming impacts.

  29. This needs more thought. If anyone knows of any papers on this topic I would be very interested.

  30. Mike @ 17

    The rate of coastal recession ranges around 50 to 100 times the vertical sea level rise for a 1:20 erodable profile (eg a beach).

    So 400m sounds like a lot for current SLR. Perhaps there is a very flat profile, some subsidence or a concentration of wave attack that is adding to the erosion process there.

  31. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    John Mercer (1978) had a little to say on this issue. 18 years before his 50 years is up and the WAIS is showing some ominous signs.

    James Hansen said we should be prepared for 5 meters by 2107. How are we tracking against that prediction? Sea Level rise is still accelerating close to his schedule.

    Bradley Opdyke is even more pessimistic on how fast the WAIS will collapse. When it happens a substantial proportion of the collapse could happen in months.

    The retreat of the Pine Island Glacier grounding line has been quite fast.

    I think I am glad that I live 200 feet above sea level. All of a sudden those canal properties do not look so good.

  32. J. Bob says:

    #27, William
    I would be very careful about “uplift”. Prior to laser range finding (earth to moon), “uplift” measurements were relative, based on RR leveling, sea levels and survey measurements. One has to remember the earth is constantly shifting, including the sea floor. So do you have error or accuracy bounds on the “uplift” numbers?

    Back to my comment as to what happened in 1980 to change the direction? Did the uplift rate change? If so where is the data? According to the Hadcrut3 data, global temps have been going up since 1910, and 1980 was nothing special. Or are there other forces at work here that we do not yet understand.

  33. Sasparilla says:

    Nice to see the NYT having an article that sort of gets there. Unfortunately things appear to be moving much faster (and accelerating) than what the old projections they are using are showing. There’s already been projections of 5 meter rise by 2100 or so if I remember right (most of southern Florida up through Lake Okeechobee will be ocean at that level, no chance for Miami no matter what kind of sea wall we put around it).

  34. catman306 says:

    From Jim Kunstler this morning:

    Sixty Lame Minutes;

    about last night’s program selling America fracing for methane gas. He is most certainly in our corner.

  35. Andy says:

    Almost all of Houston is at 45′ to 200′ in elevation. For example, almost none of Houston is in a hurricane evacuation zone other than a recently annexed suburb does have some areas 30′ to 35′ in elevation.

    The Houston Ship Channel also occupies Buffalo Bayou which has steep banks. The industry is 25 to 45′ in elevation and would probably welcome the deeper water from sea level rise as they have trouble getting ships up the channel. A sea gate at the mouth of the channel would alleviate storm surge problems and is probably going to be built as needed.

    It is Clear Lake in Harris County and Galveston County, Houston’s southern suburbs, that are growing very fast and yet are mostly 5 to 20′ above sea level. Some towns are just several feet above sea level and already suffer flooding problems. There are many billions of dollars of medical complex infrastructure on Galveston Island that will begin to be submerged with just 3′ of sea level rise.

    Clear Lake area, Galveston County, Galveston Island, the towns on the shores of Galveston Bay, that is where sea level rise will be devastating. Not to mention all of Texas’ barrier islands, most of which are either National Park or National Wildlife Refuges.

    Unknown to most people, but you can walk for hundreds of miles on completely deserted, publicly owned barrier island beaches in Texas. They are a real jewel and most aren’t bridged. You need a canoe, kayak or boat to reach them. They are backed by hundreds of thousands of acres of publicly accessible wildlife refuges as well consisting of marsh and prairie. The bays between are filled with sea grasses and hold incredible fishing. There is no place like it on the east or west coasts. All of it is less than a meter above sea level or are higher elevation dunes on barrier islands which respond to even slight sea level rise by migrating inland at terrific rates, thus destroying themselves.

    You’ll need to be specific when discussing saving Houston or else you’ll open yourself to criticism.

  36. Chris Winter says:

    The NYT article touched on shortfalls in satellite instrumentation. Here’s a good, but brief, overview of the various satellites measuring changes in polar icecaps.
    High Above the Earth, Satellites Track Melting Ice
    by Michael D. Lemonick, 06 July 2010

  37. Andy says:

    For those interested in sea level rise and specific U.S. coastlines see Pilkey’s series of books, Living with the (fill in your U.S. state here) Shore. They indicate the current rate of coastline recession and also give the slope of the continental shelf; a good indicator of how much land will erode inland given a specific amount of relative sea level rise.

    Much of the Texas coastline recedes 1,000 to 2,000 times vertical sea level rise so I’d love to have Australia’s 50 to 100 times (comment By Ricki). For Louisiana it is 10,000 to 20,000 times. That is for every foot of sea level rise the Louisiana shore will recede about 4 miles inland. With 7 feet of sea level rise you lose all of the Louisiana coast, or a 30 mile wide band. That’s about right.

  38. JCH says:

    “James Hansen said we should be prepared for 5 meters by 2107. How are we tracking against that prediction? Sea Level rise is still accelerating close to his schedule. …” – rabid doomsayer

    The latest number I’ve found for rate of melt right now is 3.5 mm per year. The upper bound in the Copenhagen Diagnosis was 5 meters by 2300 (see riki above.)

    Andy – how’s that seawall in Galveston gonna hold up?

  39. mark says:

    Folks around Baltimore still talk about the flooding due to Hurricane Isabel. It’s too easy to think of sea-level rise in terms of slightly higher water at the dock, during calm weather, rather than the sea’s ability to invade the land during storms (or landward incursions along a gently-sloping shoreline).

  40. paulm says:

    Some interesting and good detail on SLR….

    In Search of Lost Time: Ancient Eclipses, Roman Fish Tanks and the Enigma of Global Sea Level

  41. Richard Brenne says:

    Other than the John Christy reference (Memo to NY Times: Get a glaciologist to talk about glaciers, please!) and the other points Joe makes, this is otherwise quite a good, comprehensive piece for the mainstream media, and the NY Times deserves kudos (or another snack bar of their choice) for running it on the front page. This kind of coverage is long overdue and we need a million times more than we’ve seen so far.

    As usual the comments here are also excellent, each adding to the discussion, especially William T’s answer to J. Bob about Bergen at #27.

    What William T is talking about has been called glacial rebound and now most scientists prefer the term glacial isostatic adjustment. Here is the Wikipedia entry:

    Because of the Laurentide ice sheet covering most of Canada, the majority of our neighbor is rebounding at a rate greater than the current rate of sea level rise, with the most rebound centered around Hudson’s Bay. This extends into New England down to about the New York area, but neighboring regions especially to the south can then subside in a see-saw or teeter-totter effect, and in the U.S. the most vulnerable region surrounds the Chesapeake Bay, making the Potomac susceptible to sea level rise.

    The same thing is true in Great Britain, with most of Scotland rebounding while the southern half of England is subsiding, so the old saying “There will always be an England” might be updated to “Well, there will always be a Scotland.”

    Most of Scandinavia is rebounding as in the example of Bergen to 1980. (I’m a little surprised it stopped then – do we have a link to a scientific study for this?) Finland is adding 2.7 square miles of land a year due to glacial rebound.

    (Speaking of Bergen, my grandmother was born there in 1884 and told us she often skied to school, something that I’d imagine would be much less common today [even if all other things were equal] because it appears Bergen has a snowpack sufficient for skiing less frequently, on average, as the years go by, getting more and more winter precipitation as rain than snow.)

    Sea level rise is meaningful in relation to what the land is doing. Another cause of land rising is the subduction of one plate under another, for instance the Pacific plate under the North American plate is causing most of the U.S. West Coast to rise, at least until the next great 9.0 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, which could suddenly cause the West Coast from about Eureka, California to mid-Vancouver Island to slump several feet permanently in many places while experiencing a series of tsunamis due to the earthquake (which our friend Andrew Revkin has written about more and better than any other reporter).

    Sea level also rises in the long term (just to be complete) when the ocean floor rises due to tectonics and volcanism, but these aren’t factors on any appreciable time scale relative to what we’re discussing.

    Also when the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, the disappearance of its gravitational pull on ocean water will send the ocean higher by up to a foot in mid-latitudes like on the U.S. coasts, especially the West Coast. Here is the paper that discusses that, published in Science in February, 2009:

    New Orleans has kept its head mostly above water since its founding in 1718 because the French Quarter is 7 feet above sea level and the bayous have generally protected it from Gulf of Mexico hurricane storm surges.

    The levees on the Mississippi don’t allow silt during floods to regenerate the bayous, the nutrias introduced from South America in fur scams can eat 25,000 acres of bayou marshland a year, the shipping canals as well as thousands of miles of canals to install and service oil and natural gas wells and pipelines convert bayou to open water. The BP oil spill has also killed marsh grass.

    The area is naturally subsiding, much of the newer parts of New Orleans are built up (or down) to 6.5 feet below sea level, the city is heavy, and all the pumping of water, oil and natural gas in the region dramatically accelerates the subsidence.

    Sooner than most people can imagine, the ruins of New Orleans will be in the Gulf of Mexico, far from land except the bridge or docks servicing the Disneyland-like French Quarter with a sea wall around it (though actual Pirates of the Caribbean might not be as charming as the ride). Given this great city’s ultra-rich culture and history, this is beyond sad but a fact we need to face.

    Many of America’s biggest airports are built on reclaimed wetlands like San Francisco, Oakland, LaGuardia and many others in the U.S. and around the world. Amsterdam’s airport is 13 feet below sea level, and the Dutch success of previous centuries can only last another century or so, max, before almost half of the country is underwater, like about half of Bangladesh and most of the Nile River delta.

    In 1996 an Oregon State study estimated that a 100-year Pacific storm could generate 33 foot waves, but a study that came out in February of this year estimates waves could be 55 or even over 60 feet in the buoys out at sea, meaning much higher as they come toward shore. The great University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass has blogged about waves in the 40 to 50 foot range already at least twice in the last month, a much-loved couple were swept off a jetty to their deaths in Oregon last week (not a good idea, walking out on jetties in storms), and Oregon beaches like Rockaway and Neskowin are already seeing wave damage, with far more to come.

    During a storm with epic (and now much more common) waves just over a year ago my wife and I almost got drenched (we couldn’t have been swept away – I’ve been studying waves closely for over half a century) by a fire hose-like wave top 100 feet above sea level at the end of Cape Kiwanda in Oregon. Talk about getting your attention! My sister and brother-in-law, who are otherwise very intelligent people, just bought a beach property that will have a relatively short lifespan and thus lowered resale as the closest property to Cape Kiwanda.

    Expert CP commenter Leif Knutsen pointed how low pressure acting like a giant sucking a soda straw increased sea levels by 2 feet off the NW coasts of both Washington and Oregon in last January’s Frankenstorm that generated record low pressures through much of the American West, so we can add that to the myriad factors affecting sea level relative to land mentioned above. At some point inevitably many of these various factors will coincide together with a high tide to do inevitable and constantly recurring damage.

    I’ve often said that we’ve been measuring sea level in inches, but soon we will measure sea level in feet, and if Americans ever understand the metric system, in meters.

    And as Joe and Al Jolson have often said, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

  42. Andy says:

    The Galveston Sea Wall will hold up, but it will be standing on its own in the Gulf with nothing behind it to protect unless something else is done.

    Galveston has existed as a European settlement for 300 years now. I can’t see how it will survive another 300.

    It amazes me how folks think 100 or 200 years is too far into the future to think about when they live or work in structures that are that old.

  43. David B. Benson says:

    Richard Brenne — Well done.