Rising sea levels – research

Record sea-levels a matter of fact, not politics: Scharper

Muzzling scientists won’t make rising sea levels recede.

Kevin Costner in the vast blue expanse of Waterworld. The movie was a flop but perhaps prophetic.


Kevin Costner in the vast blue expanse of Waterworld. The movie was a flop but perhaps prophetic.

By:  Christianity, Published by The Toronto Star on Wed. August 21 2013

In the 1995 post-apocalyptic film Waterworld, a bedevilled Kevin Costner strives to stay alive in a post-terra-firma seascape.

In this futuristic drama, the polar ice caps have melted, civilization has gone the way of Davey Jones’s locker, and Sea-Doo skiers replace motorcycle gangs and mafiosi as prevailing thugs. Quality of life has been submerged as a societal goal, displaced by mere survival — and the wan hope of finding the almost mythic isle of Dryland.

As with the aspirations of its drenched denizens, the $178-million (U.S.) film, the most expensive ever at the time, fabulously belly-flopped.

Earlier this month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a major peer-reviewed study, which also chillingly points to an increasingly watery world. Its architects, however, are not Hollywood Armageddon marketeers, but 384 international scientists piecing together the fluid effects of once unimagined rates of global warming.

And their results are anything but photogenic.

NOAA chief Kathryn Sullivan observes that the striking findings of the research include “remarkable changes in key climate indicators,” such as spectacular spikes in ocean heat content, a record melt of summer Arctic sea ice, and gargantuan transitory ice melt throughout Greenland in 2012. The 260-page report also reveals record-high sea levels.

The most arresting changes occurred in the Arctic, claims report co-editor Deke Arndt. And that is saying something, since shattered climate records in the Arctic are becoming the “new normal,” according to a study co-author Jackie Richter-Menge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

The NOAA study follows in the wake of a grim report by climate scientist Benjamin Strauss, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggesting that hundreds of U.S. coastal cities may be partially or permanently submerged in coming decades owing to rising sea levels.

An interactive map on the website of Climate Central, a not-for-profit research group in Princeton, N.J., where Strauss is based, reveals the cities and towns that are jeopardized.

While Florida is clearly the most vulnerable U.S. state under any greenhouse gas emissions scenario, New Jersey, North Carolina and Louisiana would also face a soggy uphill battle if present rates of climate change continue. The biggest menaced metropolises are Miami; Virginia Beach, Va.; Sacramento, Calif., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Strauss’s study suggests that more than 3.6 million people dwell in the 316 municipalities that are already threatened by significant flooding, not including Canadian snowbirds.

Despite the remarkable significance of such findings, and the potentially thousands of persons killed or displaced and billions of dollars lost in such climate change scenarios, the public response seems to be a collective yawn. Outside of a few newspapers, these reports do not make for front-page headlines, nor do they top television or radio news broadcasts.

One wonders if we are becoming “disaster-numb” when confronted by such climatic scenarios.

The fact is, such watery tragedies are already happening, especially in the global South, with island nations such as the Maldives and coastal nations, such as Bangladesh, experiencing devastating flooding and concomitant hardship. Owing in part to climate change, such devastation has led to the UN to declare that today there are more environmental refugees than political refugees in the world, a stunning fact cogently brought home in the 2005 National Film Board production, Refugees of the Blue Planet.

What these studies and catastrophic developments call for is not defeatism, but political action. There is a compelling need to become, collectively, “disaster adverse,” and to proactively work to prevent such climate-engendered horrors from unfolding.

Such a stance will not be furthered by political leadership that silences scientists, as happened under the George W. Bush administration in the U.S., most notably withNASA climate expert James Hansen, and is occurring now under the current Canadian government, which has all but eliminated unfettered media access to governmental environmental scientists.

Rather than stifling its researchers, our political leadership needs to support and profile its climate scientists, and evolve policies dealing not only with emergency preparedness, but also emergency prevention, when it comes to a climate changed future.

This is how we can keep Waterworld on the screen and not in our city streets.

Stephen Bede Scharper, associate professor of environment at the University of Toronto, is author of For Earth’s Sake: Toward Ecology of Compassion. His column appears monthly. Stephen.scharepr@utoronto.ca

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