…. Thousands of Years Before Sea Level Rise Reaches Your Apartment
What’s wrong with comparing Super Storm Sandy’s devastation with projected sea level rise? They are two different things! One is a storm surge, the other an incremental change in either sea level or land subsidence (sinking) or both. For one we can evacuate the immediate area where landfall is forecast to hit in order to save lives. For the other, we have the time to build dikes and barriers like those in England and Holland, or flood-proof, or move. Super Storm Sandy is not unprecedented, and neither are extremely stormy and erratic periods of climate with catastrophic storms, like the Grote Mandrenke — The Great Drowning of Men — of the Little Ice Age. Let me set some perspective.
Michael Segal just posted an interview with Ben Strauss of Climate Central. The focus of the interview is a series of modelled maps which purport to show which parts of which city will flood as climate change affects sea level rise.
Segal describes the maps as “compelling, dystopic, and genius. You can walk future shorelines past your college, your office, and the corner deli”…or swim.
But as with most climate catastrophe evangelism, the fire and brimstone or watery depths are meant to scare you into believing one line of thinking, without looking at the issue of sea level rise in perspective.
Strauss is asked “Why build maps of predicted sea level rise?” and responds that the maps have been shown to diplomats and they were “profoundly moved” and “understood the stakes of climate change for their countries in an entirely new way.”
Of course, seeing familiar haunts underwater would be moving and terrifying, particularly in light of the real tragedies and anguish caused by Super Storm Sandy. But contrary to the article’s claim that Super Storm Sandy was evidence that ‘climate change became local’ — no, it was simply a large storm. Singular weather events are not signs of climate change. Climate is measured in 30, 50, 100 year and millennial time scales. Super Storm Sandy-force storms have not been repeated in seasonal sequence or in any number — not even over a decade.
Super Storm Sandy was an extreme weather event, something that is integral to…weather. World-wide.
Strauss references Battery Park. Battery Park never used to exist. It is reclaimed from the sea, ‘land’ built on landfill, much of it formed from the earth dug from the foundations for the World Trade Center. New York City used to sell ‘water lots’ which developers could just fill with ‘whatever’ and then sell for development. Gizmodo’s article “Watch Manhattan’s Boundaries Expand over 250 Years” of 05/09/13 authored by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan illustrates that most of the areas flooded by Super Storm Sandy were those landfilled reclamation regions of the city. In other words, they used to be the sea.
Of course, land reclaimed from the sea is nothing new for people in the Netherlands. Much of Holland is below sea level. Some 21% of the country is about 7 metres below sea level; even Schiphol Airport, ranked 5th busiest in the world for international passenger travel (2015) is some 3 metres below sea level. A complex system of dikes and the DeltaWorks project protect these lands from an influx of ocean water, something that does not exist around New York City’s reclaimed lands.
Strauss claims that “this change is unprecedented in human history” saying that “None of our institutions or beliefs are conditioned on dealing with any problem like this one” but I dispute that.
Most of contemporary society’s civil engineering innovations address the complex challenges and impacts of weather, climate and public security or sanitation needs. Obvious examples are central heating, utility infrastructure, central water and sewage systems, paved roads, floodways, and human-made sea walls, breakwaters or artificial harbour infrastructures. One of the earliest such complex ocean structures is Caesarea Maritima, (today’s Caesarea in Israel) which dates back to Roman times circa 22–10 BCE.
Obviously stormy seas and wild weather are nothing new — climate has always changed, and extreme weather events are integral to all regions of the world.
In recent times, England and Holland suffered tremendous damage by an unprecedented storm surge on the night of January 31st/February 1st, 1953. Bob Pritchard for the Royal Meteorological Society describes the confluence of spring tides, neap tides and unusual atmospheric, geographic, and social factors that combined in this tragedy in which more than 2,300 lives were lost in Britain, Belgium and Holland. Albert Jacobs lived in Holland at the time and recalls that KNMI — the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute had issued storm warnings, but the force of the storm was unexpectedly powerful.
Following this catastrophic storm surge, England took steps to prevent similar destruction and potential loss of life to the city of London. They built the Thames Barrier across the Thames River. It is ‘the world’s largest moveable flood barrier,’ a massive mechanical gate designed to be able to close and protect the city of London from such surges, while allowing the passage of ships during fair weather.
Similarly, in Holland, the mammoth DeltaWorks project was built — a series of dams and adjustable gates designed to prevent a similar tragedy during stormy seas and amplifying atmospheric conditions.
Both England and Holland are seafaring nations. The people understand that you must live with the whims of the mighty seas and stormy winds. You can’t control them.
As Pritchard and Gerritsen (2005) indicate, the 1953 tragedy was also due to lack of weather forecasting technology and skills of today, along with the then limited broadcast outlets. Another key factor is that the storm surge hit in the middle of the night when most people were asleep. These are key factors in the number of lives lost.
By contrast, prior to Super Storm Sandy, thanks to advanced weather forecasting technology, some 50 million people were advised to evacuate and to prepare for the likelihood of the loss of essential services for several days or weeks. However, as reported by Brown et al (2016) despite receiving evacuation orders, many people refused to leave their homes.
Super Storm Sandy a Faulty Comparison for Sea Level Rise
Using Super Storm Sandy as a corollary for sea level rise due to climate change is a terribly faulty analogy. Super Storm Sandy swamped massive regions within minutes of hitting the shore. Natural or predicted ‘climate change’ sea level rise is a decadal, incremental affair, measured in millimetres.
According to Albert Jacobs, a Dutchman by birth and Professional Geologist “…deltas like the one of the East coast rivers are subsiding and not a good place to measure sea levels. The accepted sea level rise is 1.8 millimetres per year…” a barely perceptible amount.
Subsidence is a term used to describe land that is sinking. As the land sinks, or erodes from the pounding sea, these geological and ocean factors are beyond human control, but the encroachment of sea water gives the appearance of water rising, even though it is not the case. Shorelines around the world vary in their states of erosion, subsidence (land sinking) or isostatic rebound (land rising, usually due to ‘rebound’ following the melting of glacial ice).
Jacobs refers to a case in point. He notes, “The North Sea is an interesting example. Well known from the faults in the old Dutch coal mines (once spent a week in there….), the Hercynian base descends in a series of downward fault steps from the Eiffel mountains into the Dutch part of the North Sea, in fact the DoggersBank, loved by all North Sea herring fishermen. This slow downwarping went on even in historic times, as a drowned and sand-covered Roman fort offshore near Katwijk (North of The Hague) testifies. Farther South, along the more stable Belgian coast the reliable ancient sea level gauge records are to be found near Knocke and Zoute.”
Those records show a stable, incremental sea level rise of 1.8 millimetres per year.
Sea Levels in Battery Park
Just to put things in perspective, 1 inch=24.5 millimetres.
As discussed by Dr. Tim Ball in a post in the climate science blog Watts Up With That, sea level rise is not something that is as simple as climate catastrophe advocates proclaim.
Sea levels change according to atmospheric pressure centers over the sea. “Sea level can rise several metres over very large areas under large low-pressure systems. As the system moves the sea level changes, and in low lying areas, causes flooding.” However, that does not mean the level of the sea has risen.
Winds can dramatically affect sea levels: “On the oceans, most people know waves and their size are a function of winds blowing over a stretch of water called a reach, but few think about the ‘piling up’ of water.”
As shown in this document, sea levels can exhibit spatial variations of some 100 metres. See: “Mean Sea Surface Height (metre)… It is clear from this image, that sea ‘level’ actually changes in height with spatial variations of 100m over the oceans.”
Sea levels change according to earth/sun/moon/planet orbital patterns and conjunctions. The warming and cooling of ocean waters affect sea levels, with warmer seas rising and cooler seas contracting. Astrophysicist Dr. Nir Shaviv, Chair of Physics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem explains how the sun raises the seas.
Dr. Shaviv refers to the graphs in the linked story. “This can be seen in the figure, where the tide-gauges-based sea level change rate is seen to vary in sync with the solar cycle, averaging close to 2 mm a year. The amount of heat inferred from this large correlation corresponds to at least six times the forcing of the irradiance alone. However, this empirical evidence and its implications are ignored in models considered by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]….As an astrophysicist, I see that the scope of solar effects considered by the IPCC is very limited; thus it arrives at wrong conclusions about what causes climate change.”
But let’s assume Ben Strauss’s numbers and forget about astrophysics for a moment. Anthony Watts did the math on Battery Park.
He rounded up the sea level rise to 3.0 mm a year (3 mm = 0.11811 inch).
Look at this.
4 metres = 4000 millimetres
4000 millimetres /3.0 millimetres per year = 1333 years
Will you be around 1,333 years from now to make a claim for your property, if it is inundated by sea water (and there’s no guarantee that will happen)?
But What of Arctic and Antarctic Ice Melt Due to Global Warming?
In the Medium article by Segal, Strauss points out that most calculations do not address ice melt from Antarctica. Why is this different from the potential melt in the Arctic?
The Arctic ice cap is basically a large ice cube floating on water. Like a drink with ice in it, filled to the brim, when the ice melts, the glass does not overflow. Why? Ice is expanded water. A good experiment is to fill a glass with ice add water to the brim. Two observations should be noted: 1) the ice sticks up over the top of the glass/water contact because ice is less dense than the water; 2) when all the ice melts the total water in the glass will have dropped this proves that ice takes up more space than the original volume of water.
However, the ice on land masses like Greenland in the northern hemisphere, and Antarctica at the South Pole, if melted, would add to the volume of water. But there are many caveats as to what the outcome would be. Water is very heavy. The earth’s crust is relatively thin and rather ‘mobile’ in some respects. The additional weight of water might weigh down certain tectonic plates or cause other changes to the ocean floor that would mitigate anticipated sea level rise. Cold waters might further cool the seas, causing contraction of sea level rise. Many of these variables are addressed in Dr. Ball’s post mentioned above.
As discussed at length in Carl Wunsch’s 2010 paper, there are many other variables about the oceans that are not considered in simplistic ‘climate catastrophe’ claims about ice melt and sea level rise. An obvious one is evaporation. Wunsch notes: “Almost all of this injection of freshwater is balanced by net evaporation–but in a different regional pattern and with a different atmospheric physics. The residual is a global sea level rise of order of magnitude of 1mm/y (an excess of about 0.01Sv more freshwater entering than leaving)” Wunsch summarized.
Strauss simplistically assumes that any melt in Antarctica would be due to human industrial carbon dioxide emissions, and therefore manageable if we stop using fossil fuels. Recent research has shown there are some 91 volcanoes under the ice. Some 379 subglacial lakes have also been mapped under Antarctica (lakes of flowing water under 4,000 metres of dense ice). It is thought that geothermal activity creates them. “The largest is Lake Vostok in East Antarctica (240 km long, 50 km wide and hundreds of metres deep).” The geothermal activity and lakes cause ice melt that we can do nothing about.
I started writing this article on July 23, 2018. On that day, the temperature at Amundsen-Scott South Pole station was -63°Celsius ( -81.4°F) and with wind chill -88°C. Two degrees C of local OR global warming will not melt that block of ice.
Thus, Strauss’ claim that “Every ton of carbon we put into the atmosphere is like unplugging another freezer full of ice. It doesn’t instantly melt. But the number of freezers we’ve already unplugged is enough to wreck many important coastal cities in the world” is unfounded because ice melt is not a sole function of industrial carbon dioxide emissions and the response to additional ice or meltwater does not result in a simple 1+1=2 calculation. Further, no city will be swamped by metres of water in minutes as in Super Storm Sandy; it would be millimetres of sea level rise over decades. As pointed out, the rise would be incremental and human beings have time to take effective measures in response.
Strauss that there is ‘extreme consensus’ on these outcomes, but the foregoing references to Wunsch’s work (Wunsch is an oceanographer; Strauss is a biologist) suggest there are many unknown unknowns and that climate, shoreline, and ocean systems are far more complex than assigning metres to meltwaters.
Strauss also claims the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is being conservative in their estimates of warming. Many IPCC scientists, present and former, strongly disagree. Roger Pielke, Jr. has noted that scientists like to refer to the IPCC’s modelled ‘business-as-usual’ high-end catastrophic warming forecasts known as Representative Concentration Pathways or RCP 8.5, especially when addressing future impacts on warming, because it is so dramatic. However, it also bears no resemblance to observations.
Geologist Gregory Wrightstone notes in his power point that sea level rise forecasts have progressively declined in IPCC reports.
Judith Curry, atmospheric scientist, reviewed the most recent IPCC AR5 report and found that the case for human causation of global warming was weakened by the evidence. She stated in testimony to the US Senate that ‘carbon dioxide is not the control knob that can fine tune climate.’ Economist Richard Tol, lead author of the IPCC’s AR5 Working Group II report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” refused to sign the report, saying it was far too ‘apocalyptic.’ In a news report he said: ‘The message in the first draft was that through adaptation and clever development these were manageable risks, but it did require we get our act together….This has completely disappeared from the draft now, which is all about the impacts of climate change and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. This is a missed opportunity.’ 
Boston or Miami?
Strauss makes passing comments about Miami being on rock that is ‘porous like a sponge’ and therefore he posits that ‘you can’t build effective flood control structures in the long run.’ In fact, much of Florida lies on a calcium carbonate platform which dissolves when exposed to fresh water. This is the main reason for the many sinkholes and, there is ‘no cure.’ This has not stopped the construction of multi-billion-dollar resort and condo projects, most of them right on the shore!
As Dr. John D. Harper, FGSA, FGAC, PGeol., former director of the Geological Survey of Canada, explained in a 2016 interview, in the last glaciation, the sea level dropped about 250 metres, exposing the calcium carbonate platform that Florida sits on. He notes the similarity of Florida to the Bahamas where deep sea divers are finding human remains and artifacts in caves far beneath the sea. Clearly sea level rise is simply part of human life on earth.
Most people like to live beside water. From the Star Carr people of the Mesolithic era in Britain, to Doggerland, to the many cities lost to the sea due to weak foundations, shifting sands, storm surges or tectonic activity that claimed whole cities, sea level rise and associated geological realities are common throughout human history.
Therefore, in established cities, we typically find there are millions of dollars worth of real estate properties and industries built on known ocean and river flood plains. In early times, people settled near the shore because work stemmed from the activity at the docks. This historic build up is unlikely to be moved inland.
In Boston, Kirshen, Knee and Ruth (2008) studied the matter in “Climate change and coastal flooding in Metro Boston: impacts and adaptation strategies” providing a general cost-benefit analysis of four potential responses: “Ride It Out (RIO); nonstructural, environmentally benign or green accommodation (GREEN); Build Your Way Out (BYWO), and Retreat (RETREAT).”
They close by saying “While uncertainty in the expected rate of [sea level rise] SLR and damages makes planning difficult, the results also show that no matter what the climate change scenario or the location, not taking action is the worst response as in our Ride It Out scenario.”
What is Strauss’ Solution?
Here is perhaps the most curious part of the interview with Ben Strauss. After spending so much time and effort on establishing how cities will flood due to sea level rise (and not accounting for the variables like evaporation and others as in Wunsch 2010), Strauss resorts to a pitch for renewables technology!
He says in response to a question about whether new technology can save us: “I think we basically have the renewable energy technology that we need. To the extent that there’s a missing piece, that’s energy storage through batteries or other means that can help us move the grid to near-100 percent renewable. Carbon removal from the atmosphere would help as well.”
He makes a further pitch later on reiterating a pessimistic view as an ‘occupational hazard’ of climate science, an apocalyptic view that ‘frightening climate impacts could occur much more quickly’ and swiftly turning to ‘climate solutions’ …in renewables and electric vehicles and lower priced wind and solar.”
This is totally suspect. We have existing examples of real solutions in London, England’s Thames Barrier and Holland’s DeltaWorks.
These are engineering projects that address the issue of sea level rise for major cities and a nation. But Strauss has no time for engineers, seawalls or floodgates. He only has time for renewables — despite him earlier claiming that ‘we are locked in’ to a 1.5°Celsius disaster scenario of nine feet. Nine feet = 2.7432 metres, or 2743.2 millimetres. That means we have more than a thousand years to do something about it. The Thames Barrier was designed in 1969, construction began in 1974, it was largely complete by 1982 and the official opening was on May 8, 1984. Cost? £534 million (£1.6 billion at 2016 prices)
Surely this is an example of ‘technology saving us’ in a practical applied manner. As the Boston engineers suggested there are basically four options: “Ride It Out (RIO); nonstructural, environmentally benign or green accommodation (GREEN); Build Your Way Out (BYWO), and Retreat (RETREAT).” None of these engineers suggested that renewable wind/solar could solve a practical issue of shoreline flooding, a phenomenon that has been with human kind since the days of Doggerland, the Star Carr people and the Roman Empire.
Questioning the Strauss Solution
If burning or using fossil fuels in manufacturing is the problem allegedly causing sea level rise, how can renewables like wind and solar, which require 100% conventional power generation back-up by natural gas be a solution? Wind and solar require vast amounts of fossil fuels to produce the turbines and panels. As Prof. Em. Vaclav Smil explains: “To get wind you need oil… [wind turbines]…themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels.” How can electric vehicles be a solution when electric vehicles would require massive expansion of conventional power generation by natural gas, coal or nuclear to serve the demand for charging — and would require a multi-trillion-dollar upgrade to the grid – all of which would require millions of tons of coal, Petajoules of natural gas, and cubic miles of oil to accomplish?
How can Strauss claim so lightly that ‘there’s a missing piece’ — battery storage, as if there will be a magical solution for this tomorrow, when energy commentator Euan Mearns calls battery storage the ‘Holy Grail.’ Look at the costs Mearns outlines for present technology: “It is found that installing enough battery storage to convert intermittent wind/solar generation into long-term baseload generation increases total capital costs generally by factors of three or more for wind and by factors of ten or more for solar, even at $100/kWh. Clearly the Holy Grail of energy policy is still a long way off….First a simple calculation. $100/kWh = $100,000/MWh = $100 million/GWh = $100 billion/TWh. If everyone is happy with this, we can proceed.”
To fill out that perspective, in another post he describes the present global storage capacity (2016) “… installed world battery + CAES + flywheel + thermal + other storage capacity amounts to only about 12 GWh, enough to fill global electricity demand for all of fifteen seconds. Total global storage capacity with pumped hydro added works out to only about 500 GWh, enough to fill global electricity demand for all of ten minutes.” (bold added)
Why would we turn to wind and solar for power generation when Prof. Michael J. Kelly of Cambridge shows they cannot support even basic society?  And why would we want to withdraw carbon dioxide from the air when many scientists are clear that carbon dioxide is not the control knob on climate?
One answer may come from Climate Central’s list of funders. While it is an impressive list, there we find ClimateWorks. ClimateWorks is a group of billionaire philanthropists pushing cap and trade systems worldwide. For that you need tradeable Renewable Energy Certificates (REC). REC’s are what wind and solar produce.
According to the Podesta Wikileaks files, ClimateWorks has been spending more than $600 million a year to fund environmental non-governmental groups like Climate Central to push the climate change scenario and agitate for changes to local energy policies toward wind and solar. They have paid influential consulting firms like McKinsey and Co. some $42.4 million to help strategize and orchestrate their plan worldwide. They want to put USD$12 trillion worth of wind and solar worldwide — never mind that it is unsuited to more than nominal complementary power generation and only in specific geographic locations. Solar anything north of the 35 N latitude is an energy sink — using more energy to produce the panel than it will return. Wind has only about a 33% performance level. Both require such massive back-end investments in natural gas back-up, integration, IT upgrades and transmission lines that even if all the devices were free, the back-end costs would make wind and solar untenable and society bankrupt. Modern society would collapse if reliant on kinetic capture, weather dependent wind and solar which cannot support basic society. AND — how will that address sea level rise?
So, for my part, I am disappointed to read a long interview based in an apocalyptic scenario of sea level rise that conflates an extreme weather event like Super Storm Sandy, with the achingly slow sea level rise at the accepted sea level rise rate of 1.8 millimetres/year or 0.07086614 inches, which gives people plenty of time to build sea wall defenses, retrofit buildings, or …move.
Your house or apartment might be inundated by the seas a thousand years from now, or not. Whatever the case, you have time to prepare.
Maybe the future is not so dystopian after all. That’s good news. Be happy!
Michelle Stirling is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the AAAS. She is an author on Social Science Research Network (SSRN).
 “Sv” 1 Sv equal to 1,000,000 cubic metres per second (264,000,000 USgal/s). It is used almost exclusively in oceanography to measure the volumetric rate of transport of ocean currents. In the context of ocean currents, one million cubic meters per second may be most easily imagined as a “slice” of ocean, 1 km wide x 1 km deep x 1 m thick. At this scale, these units can be more easily compared in terms of width of the current (several km), depth (hundreds of meters), and current speed (as meters per second). Thus, a hypothetical current 50 km wide, 500 m (0.5 km) deep, and moving at 2 m/s would transport 50 Sv of water. Source: Wikipedia