“Storms, Extreme Tides, and Sea Level Rise.” Interview with Author and Climate Explorer John Englander by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Magazine
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Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature …
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge
Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by
By and by —
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky
“Before The Deluge”
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Interview with John by Willi
It seems that slow environmental impacts require a different mindset and preparedness vs. fast catastrophic events, like flooding or fire? Correct?
Slowly rising sea level does require a different mindset than catastrophic events, but it’s more nuanced that most would likely realize intuitively. To start we should distinguish three things which tend to blend together for most people: storms, extreme tides, and sea level rise.
We know what a storm surge is and how to prepare, even though there is no long term prediction for the event. “King Tides” are different in that the extreme water heights at certain predictable days of the lunar and astrologic calendar are now flooding low lying areas in most coastal cities from the Bay Area to Miami Beach, to Bangladesh to Australia. Slowly rising sea level worsens the effects of storm and extreme tides, but is hard to notice because by itself, it is so small and slow to change. But in the long term, it will be like the parable of the tortoise winning the race.
The simple fact is that sea level has not been higher than at present for 120,000 years, the last “warm spot” in the repeating ice age cycles. So we have no recall of that in our culture. Then it got about 25 feet higher than at present. But sea level is now headed even much higher than that level. We just cannot know for sure whether it will happen in a few centuries or a few millennia.
Sea level is a function primarily of the size the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica and to a smaller degree the glaciers all over the world. Usually the amount of ice adjusts over thousands of years. Now it is happening quickly. Three figures make clear that we have no awareness in human history for what has now started to happen. For about 6,000 years, sea level has been rather stable, essentially the time span of human civilization. 20,000 years ago, at the maximum extent of the most recent ice age, when the ice sheets extended rather far down the northern hemisphere, global sea level was nearly 400 feet lower than at present, illustrating the range of movement that is possible. Now carbon dioxide levels and global temperature are creeping up and sea level is going in the same direction as it always has for five hundred million years.
There is a lag time for the ice to melt and the ocean to get higher, particularly at the extremely fast rates of warming over the last century. If we look at the big picture, it was about 15 million years ago, when CO2 levels were at the present level of 400 ppm. Then global average temperature was about 5-10 degrees F warmer and sea level was about 75 feet higher than now. That is why geologists realize we are headed for MUCH higher sea level. We just don’t know how quickly that can happen. Could be three hundred years; could be three thousand years. It depends on how warm the planet get over the next century or so, which will be determined by such factors as population levels, how much energy we use and how we make that energy. No one can possibly know the exact answer to those questions for the rest of this century.
But that is no reason not to being preparing. Rather than arguing about the accuracy of models and predictions for how many inches it will rise by 2050 or 2100, I advocate starting to plan for three feet of rise, which is already inevitable. If the worst happens and that occurs this century we will be prepared. If we can slow the rate of rise by doing all the right things to reduce greenhouse gases, then we might delay it until the next century. But it gives us a clear target for our planning, engineering, and architecture. Planning with the long term picture in view will challenge us greatly, but it can also inspire us to do great things. It should also give us a better ROI “return on investment” – the usual economic metric, since our designs will anticipate three feet and then more.
How many public agency impacts can you foresee involved as the waters rise on the coast of California? Who will be in charge?
I can’t answer that. I have met with several groups in the Bay Area, including the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the Joint Policy Committee, who are definitely focusing on the issue. In fact that question of who will be in charge is something that California is asking. Earlier in December I was interviewed by the staff of a state group known as the “Little Hoover Commission” who are mandated to report on the effectiveness of the Executive Branch of State government. They were discussing that very question of whether restructuring will be necessary to deal with rising sea level. Their report is still are in process.
It is a little similar to earthquake preparedness, which everyone accepts and may have some level of experience, but at the same time is totally different. As I explained above, sea level has not been higher than the present for 120,000 years and is thus the extreme challenge for preparedness and public understanding.
Preparing for sea level will effectively never be finished, because there is the possibility that sea level will rise by ten feet in as little as a decade if we get a collapse of sections of the West Antarctic ice sheet — something we simply do not know at the present. We need to hope that does not happen this century, and many scientists think it is a very low probability. But it is very real possibility so we must continue to prepare for higher and higher sea levels. But even if the collapse happens, that ten foot rise will likely happen fairly slowly, perhaps over a decade. So there will be time to evacuate. But the sooner we plan for it the better. Let’s start with 3 feet. Planning groups in the Bay Area like SPUR are now looking at this issue.
How do you propose to teach the average citizen about sea level rise and climate change?
It is so radical that it is going to take extraordinary effort, coordination, and time. For the first time in human civilization the shoreline has started a slow move inland, as sea level gets higher. This will continue for centuries. Since this has not happened EVER before to our species, it is a big challenge that cannot be minimized. Fortunately the awareness is starting. There are more and more articles in the media, including print and video. My book: “High Tide on Main Street” Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis”, is selling much better than I expected both in print, e-book, and audio versions. So there is interest. Your blog reader’s right here are an example of unconventional thinkers who are starting to tune into this issue and looking at the planet shift that it represents.
Share a myth (story) about Typhoon Haiyan with us?
I have no direct experience with Haiyan. Often I have been asked, even on television, as to whether it represents an example of human-caused climate change. To most people’s surprise, my response is that it is very hard to say that with certainty, even though the higher levels of ocean heat over the last century can be correlated with increased storm activity. Here is an analogy. Imagine a basketball player who typically got twenty points a game and then suddenly started getting 50 points. They test him for drugs and find steroids. Was the last point he got due to the steroids, or was that one of the 20 he was getting previously? Impossible to say. It sounds academic, but it illustrates the trap of saying that a specific storm was due to warming ocean temperatures.
But here is an effect that was evident with Haiyan. Sea level in that area of the Pacific is about a foot higher than a century ago. Whatever the storm surge of that typhoon, its impact was considerably worse due to the higher sea level. Storm surge is on top of the base sea level. And each foot of higher sea level can move the ocean about three hundred feet farther inland as a global average. That is the example of the hidden effect of slowly rising sea level on the extreme tides and storms with which we are all familiar.
We should recognize that things are going to get pretty strange this century, just given the elevated CO2 and temperature levels at present. It will be hard to not try to do something in the face of more and more catastrophes. But certainly we have to be very careful with efforts to intentionally tinker with the planet’s “HVAC” (heating ventilating & air conditioning) to use the term for our homes and buildings. In fact I think we have been geo-engineering for thousands of years. For example, centuries ago when we discovered antiseptics and reduced natural infant mortality from about ninety percent to less than ten percent we changed the population dynamics. Nutrition and medical technology have also allowed us to alter population levels. Seven billion people on this planet headed to ten billion by mid century could be considered geo-engineering. Everything we do amounts to changing the planet’s natural state. It happened even before humans, as other flora and fauna evolved, changing the eco system. To some degree it is a natural process. I know I am digressing, but it is important to put the ominous term “geoengineering” into perspective.
Now we use the term GEOENGINEERING to mean purposeful ways to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth, or ways to remove the excessive carbon dioxide that is causing the warming. Given what is happening with our climate, and now melting the glaciers and ice sheets, I think there will be some efforts to try to slow the effects, though it is hard to say when or how. Suffice to say, we need to proceed VERY cautiously due to the possibility of unintended consequences, the “side effects.” So I am not a “fan of manipulating weather” as you say, but as our weather goes more and more whacky, and the ice sheets melt, raising sea level, there will almost certainly be some efforts to try to slow things.
In fact as I explain on my blog site and in my book, even if if we all became perfectly “green” and sustainable, if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today, sea level would still rise due to the excess heat already trapped in the ocean. The ocean is about 1.5 degrees F warmer than a century ago. As a result it is simple physics that the ice sheets will continue to get smaller. We can slow the process but not stop it this century. So it seems to me that some country in the world is going to try to reverse things even if it is a “rogue effort.”
New islands are being created from volcanic activity in the oceans more and more. What is the big picture?
In the middle of the last century, we understood continental drift and seafloor spreading, the mechanism where new ocean bottom is generally created in the mid Atlantic and a similar amount of earth’s crust disappears from the Pacific. We realized that the land area was dynamic, a very natural geologic process. In a few places like Hawaii and to a lesser degree in the Caribbean and elsewhere there are some new islands being created when enough lava spews forth and breaks the surface, creating or expanding an island. But that phenomenon will be tiny compared to the amount of land that will disappear as sea level rises.
For centuries we assumed that sea level was generally fixed, meaning the shoreline was rather permanent, except for some erosion. Geologists did not fully understand the ice age cycles until the 19th century. Even today, most people believe that coastal land is permanent. It is not. The ice age cycles gave us the knowledge that sea level moves up and down about four hundred feet roughly every hundred thousand years. Most of the public still does not understand that. But that was not a problem until a few decades ago, when we realized that we were starting to melt the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica very quickly, way outside the natural patterns of the ice ages. At the current rate of warming and melt, we now face a totally new dynamic in terms of the limited duration of most coastal property, even if that duration is more than a century. This is a game changer. It means re-thinking our entire coastal use.
While really disruptive and potentially catastrophic, it will happen almost in slow motion. This is a huge planetary shift. It means changes in government policy, in architecture, finance, accounting, law — indeed for our entire society, and our consciousness. It is a new reality. We must begin adapting to this new reality, while we also try to slow the warming (sometimes referred to as “mitigation”). We need to see this as a huge challenge. It can be the glass half full or half empty. If we just focus on the negative, we will become ‘frozen’ like the deer in the headlights. I believe there is time to adapt. But, there is no time to waste.
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Mr. Englander’s Bio –
John is an oceanographer and global ocean explorer with expeditions under the polar ice cap, deep dives in research submarines and visits to Greenland and Antarctica. His mission is to be a clear voice on our changing climate and oceans. Mr. Englander’s broad marine science background coupled with majors in Geology and Economics allow him to see the big picture on climate and look ahead to the large scale financial and societal impacts, particularly as they relate to sea level rise. For over 30 years, Englander has been a leader in both the private sector and the non-profit arena, serving as CEO for such noteworthy organizations as The Cousteau Society and The International SeaKeepers Society, and The Underwater Explorers Society (UNEXSO).
He is now President of the Sea Level Institute, working with businesses, government agencies, and communities to understand the financial risks as increasing severe storms and long term sea level rise challenge us to adapt to a shoreline that will move inland for centuries. Mr. Englander is a Fellow of the Institute of Marine, Engineering, Science and Technology, and The Explorers Club. He is a member of the American Geophysical Union and several other scientific societies. He blogs at www.johnenglander.net
johnenglander1 at gmail.com
Skype ID – johnenglander
“Copyright by John Englander and used with the author’s permission. http://www.johnenglander.net”