“The sea level on a stretch of the US Atlantic coast that features the cities of New York, Norfolk and Boston is rising up to four times faster than the global average, a report said Sunday.
This increases the flood risk for one of the world’s most densely-populated coastal areas and threatens wetland habitats, said a study reported in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Since about 1990, the sea level along the 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) “hotspot” zone has risen by two to 3.7 millimetres (0.08 to 0.15 inches) per year.
The global rise over the same period was between 0.6 and one millimetre per year, said the study by the US Geological Survey(USGS).
If global temperatures continue to rise, the sea level on this portion of the coast by 2100 could rise up to 30 centimetres over and above the one-metre global surge projected by scientists, it added.
The localised acceleration is thought to be caused by a disruption of Atlantic current circulation.
“As fresh water from the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet enters the ocean, it disrupts this circulation, causing the currents to slow down,” USGS research oceanographer and study co-author Kara Doran explained.
“When the Gulf Stream current weakens, sea levels rise along the coast and the greatest amount of rise happens north of where the Gulf Stream leaves the coast (near Cape Hatteras).”
The hotspot stretches from Cape Hatteras, Northern Carolina to north of Boston, Massachusetts and also includes other big cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore.
“Extreme water levels that happen during winter or tropical storms, perhaps once or twice a year, may happen more frequently as sea level rise is added to storm surge,” Doran told AFP.
“Scientists predict that this will lead to increased beach erosion and more frequent coastal flooding.”
Another study has shown a one-metre sea level rise to increase New York’s severe flooding risk from one incident every century to one every three years.
The USGS report was based on actual tide level measurements, said Doran. Other studies have shown a similar hotspot using climate models.
In a 2007 assessment report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change saidglobal warming would cause the sea level to rise by up to 59 centimetres by century’s end.
Even this relatively modest projection would render several island nations unlivable and wreak havoc in low-lying deltas home to hundreds of millions.
But reports since then have said that melting Arctic ice plays a greater role in sea level rise than previously suspected, and most climate change scientists now project the ocean will rise roughly a metre by century’s end.
Climate warming causes sea levels to rise by melting land-ice and through the thermal expansion of water.
In a separate study in Nature Climate Change, European scientists said a 1.5-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures would see sea levels peak at about 1.5 metres above 2000 levels.
But warming of two degrees would result in sea levels reaching 2.7 metres — nearly double.
The UN is targeting a 2 C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) limit on warming from pre-industrial levels for manageable climate change.
“Due to the long time it takes for the world’s ice and water masses to react to global warming, our emissions today determine sea levels for centuries to come,” said lead author Michiel Schaeffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.”
“Ghorama is an island located in West Bengal, India, that is eroding into the ocean due to a dramatic increase in the sea level. The photographer posed locals on disappearing segments of the island. According to the artist, locals who still live on the larger segment of the island expect to be relocated within the next 25 years. (Photo: Daesung Lee/Sipa Press)”
Despite the fact that the U.S. is on track to experience one of its worst weather-related-disaster years on record, many in the U.S. do not attribute weather events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or fire to climate change, particularly human-induced climate change. But this luxury is not one afforded to the countries that are on the front lines of climate change. While those of us in developed, high-emitting countries sit back and debate whether or not our activities intensify weather-related catastrophe (and the loss and detriment to human life that ensues), there is this lingering what-if question: if our actions and inactions carry the possibility danger and forced human sacrifice, why wait? If acting now might help, what are we waiting for?
For the Marshall Islands in particular, this is not the first time where land and people have acted as an American testing site… a what-if battleground of sorts. On March 1, 1954 alone, when the United States detonated the experimental hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, it’s strength was 1,000 times the strength of Hiroshima. 1,000 times. The Marshallese that called Bikini their home were sadly relocated to neighboring islands prior to the period of nuclear testing, which started in 1946. They watched as ironically named Bravo’s mushroom cloud soared into the air, and only hours later were covered in a toxic, nuclear mist. In the weeks and months that followed, perfectly innocent islanders experienced a sickening variety of symptoms, including nausea, itching, and vomiting at first, which over the years has led to hair loss, tumors, disfigurement, cancers, and death. In a dizzying and erratic turn of events, over the coming decades, the Marshallese were moved by the US Military back to the nuclear waste-sites that they still think of as their homes and then relocated back to “safer” islands multiple times, on broken promises that their contaminated islands were considered live-able. All in all, the Marshall Islands was home to 66 nuclear bomb detonations.
And for those of us that were not alive during this nuclear experimentation era, and therefore feel like we escape the feelings of guilt that come with inaction… a month ago, nearly 100 chickens and ducks died mysteriously on Kwajalein atoll- an inhabited nuclear contamination site. The United States has ruled out avian flu, but has yet to inform the Marshallese what the cause of sudden death may be. To think that these idyllically beautiful outer islands have somehow been scrubbed clean is to shamefully oversimplify the matter.
Comparing 66 nuclear experiments in a faraway land to our own personal greenhouse gas emissions may seem like a stretch. Maybe it is. But spending time in the Marshall Islands means that you think about these things. Every time I eat this tuna here and (somewhat selfishly) wonder whether it is contaminated or see an individual with physical deformities, I get this sinking feeling that we are doing it again. This time, rather than experimenting with nuclear bombs for the “good of mankind” (which is what the Marshallese were told they were contributing to), we are experimenting with emissions. I am certainly in this category myself- after all, I flew on a commercial airliner to get to this what-if observation deck. From the comfort of our homes, we debate whether our actions mean anything to the rest of the world. Whether our activity or inactivity impacts the world around us. What if? If there is a possibility that our actions impact others in nuclear proportions, is this a legacy worth repeating?
Fred Beren, a Filipino man who has lived with his Marshallese wife in the Marshall Islands for about three decades, does not know what is causing his country’s landscape and climate to change. But he thinks that Americans can do something about it. This belief comes from deep springs of hope; trust; and confidence, rather than a sense of blame or resentment. He understands that something bad is happening to his island home because he lives with the changes every day.
It is hard to imagine a home more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change- Fred’s home sits precariously on a small mound above the Pacific ocean, each wave lapping close to everything he owns. I stumbled upon Fred during a morning walk while taking photographs of the foreboding cemetery near his home. Friendly and sincere, Fred came out of his already ajar front door and seemed eager to connect.
He spoke fondly of a time when the Marshall Islands were “bigger” and more robust. He reminisced of a beach he used to swim at, where coconut trees provided shade (and perhaps a mid-swim break of sustenance). Now, he says this beach is nearly unrecognizable- the coconut trees have relinquished themselves to the shore- toppling under the stress of the advancing salty sea. He knows people who have homes near that particular beach who experience frequent flooding. Since he lives on the tide-side of the island of Majuro, he has noticed the waves increasing in intensity and height, particularly during the winter King Tide season.
When asked why this may be happening, Fred is not quick to blame. He wonders if the ice melting in other parts of the world might be contributing to the rising sea in his backyard. But during our conversation, I never sensed an iota of “agenda” or that he was repeating warnings that were preached to him in any way. Rather, Fred came across as a humble, simple, concerned man who loves his home. When I asked if I could take pictures of his back yard (the Pacific), he was hesitant at first because it had not been cleaned. He was referring to the garbage that washes up on shore, present on every remote island I have ever stepped foot on- inhabited or uninhabited. He loves living in the Marshall Islands because there is “no crime… it is safe here and the people are friendly.” But since he is very close to the ocean, he worries about bigger waves or further sea level rise in the future.
We walk to Fred’s backyard and notice gleeful Marshallese children bodysurfing on a consistent break just to the south of his home. Fred is concerned that I may fall and pays careful attention to my every rocky step as if I am a toddler navigating a stairway for the first time. As I thanked him profusely for his candor, he rushes to top my gratitude, thanking me for flying to his home and taking time to learn his story. I probed a little to find out why he was so appreciative of the opportunity to share his experience. In response- his parting words: “Because you are an American lady, you can do something for the Marshall Islands.”
If my yard flooded consistently, would I still mow it?
This is a question I ask myself often (basically since my fascination and concern for drowning islands began)- and for some reason, it’s usually in the context of lawn-mowing. When thinking about or writing on the subject of drowning islands, I often linger on the psychological and motivational impacts that climate change has on the hardest/soonest hit countries. If you live on an atoll, do you care about things like mowing the lawn (despite increasing floods), repainting the kitchen (even though you’ve heard your house may eventually be underwater), re-tile the floor (why? It’ll just flood the next time a storm comes through…)?
So, imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I first stumbled upon a Marshallese man trimming his lawn. Then another. And another. It appears that the Marshallese take great pride in even the appearance of their property, despite the worsening environmental struggles they face. This characteristic (persevering motivation) actually fits a theme of the Marshallese: we are not leaving. Come hell or high water, we are not abandoning our country. The Marshallese are inexplicably, tangibly, and holistically interconnected with their physical islands. As a people they remain committed to climate-solutions as opposed to throwing in the towel. In fact, a section of the RMI Constitution reads:
“All we have and are today as a people, we have received as a sacred heritage which we pledge ourselves to safeguard and maintain, valuing nothing more dearly than our rightful home on the islands within the traditional boundaries of this archipelago.”
I have an area in my yard that struggles- it’s this prime piece of side-yard real estate for me, but yet it lies lower than everything that surrounds it, so it floods and just generally struggles. My husband and I have tried various things throughout the years to improve it’s state, to no avail. I have thought about throwing in the towel on that particular section on many occasions, but I believe I have found my motivation to keep mowing, so to speak, in the Marshallese.
I have a special place in my heart for vulnerable communities that sit precariously above the water- the atoll nations of the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, in particular. But seeing my first atoll-nation grave-sites today made an emotional impression that I will not soon forget.
Today was my first day in Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands- a thin strip of land nestled in between Hawaii and the northern tip of Australia. The country is certainly a contender for the “ground-zero” of climate change impacts, and is what I refer to as a “drowning island.” The land is short in stature, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for in brilliance and intensity it almost all things- color, scorching warmth, delicious tuna, drop-dead-gorgeous and giving individuals, and stunning scenery. This place feels like magic in a palpable way.
The color of the day morphed considerably- when I arrived in the morning, the landscape was muted to a bright white with shaded accents- the sun bleaching faces and storefronts, beaches and clouds. This evening, everything is tinged in varying shades of blue. It was swelteringly hot, but to get my bearings and to see and talk to the Marshallese people, I walked for several hours down the main road that connects furthest tip to furthest tip. The narrow stretch in between barely lifts out of the ocean. I’m not exactly an athlete, but I could throw a stone across the island in a surprising number of locations.
Walking may sound misleadingly easy, so let me set the record straight here. Apparently last night there was a storm that shot seawater higher and further than “normal” (a decreasingly accurate term in climate-vulnerable zones like this one). There was in incredible amount of standing water in the streets and yards, despite the pounding, intense rays of the sun. I basically ended up walking down the middle of the street, which is no easy feat in Majuro where there is a fairly constant stream of vehicle traffic down its busy, main road.
I talked to many people about the water. I even rolled up my sleeves and helped a small army of kids fill up wheelbarrows of soft, almost mustard colored sand to dump into their yards for a make-shift “sponge” effect (this was slow work and it was hard work). The general consensus was that rain and waves have always been part-and-parcel of island living, but that these forces have increased in duration, frequency, and intensity in this past generation. There are no party-lines on that one- elders and teenagers, men and women, business owners and happy-go-lucky alike agree: there is less land and more water in Majuro than there used to be.