“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.”
As we already know, the mega-emitting United States is not immune to the impacts of climate change. But usually when we think of beach erosion, we think of coral atolls poking out of the middle of vast oceans, sparsely populated and rarely mentioned. Yet, as the New York Times points out in its recent story entitled “Hawaii’s Beaches Are in Retreat, and Way of Life May Follow,” beach erosion is also a problem in the United States. The full story is copied below, and available at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/science/hawaiis-beaches-are-in-retreat-and-way-of-life-may-follow.html?_r=1.
Most beaches on the state’s three largest islands are eroding, and the erosion is likely to accelerate as sea levels rise, the United States Geological Survey is reporting.
Though average erosion rates are relatively low — perhaps a few inches per year — they range up to several feet per year and are highly variable from island to island and within each island, agency scientists say. The report says that over the last century, about 9 percent of the sandy coast on the islands of Hawaii, Oahu and Maui has vanished. That’s almost 14 miles of beach.
The findings have important implications for public safety, the state’s multibillion-dollar tourism economy and the way of life Hawaiians treasure, said Charles H. Fletcher, who led the work for the agency.
“This is a serious problem,” said Dr. Fletcher, a geologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Sea level does not rise uniformly around the world, and so far, Dr. Fletcher and other geologists said in interviews, Hawaii has escaped some of the rise that has occurred elsewhere as earth’s climate warms. But that situation is unlikely to continue, the report says.
Hawaii’s geological history also leaves it unusually vulnerable. The islands formed, one by one, as a tectonic plate carrying them moved to the northwest over a “hot spot,” where a plume of molten lava pushes through the seafloor. Over the millenniums, this material cools, accumulates and eventually rises above the waves. (Loihi, an underwater — for now — mountain southeast of the island of Hawaii, is the latest to undergo this process.)
But once the slow plate movement carries an island away from the hot spot, its volcanic material begins to compress, causing the island to start to sink, worsening its erosion prospects.
The new analysis, “National Assessment of Shoreline Change: Historical Shoreline Change in the Hawaiian Islands,” is the latest in a series of reports the geological survey has produced for the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, California and some of Alaska. Over all, their findings are similar: “They all show net erosion to varying degrees,” said Asbury H. Sallenger Jr., a coastal scientist for the agency who leads the work.
He said the studies aimed to establish a baseline from which scientists could “really assess what sea level rise actually does in the future to our coasts.”
S. Jeffress Williams, another scientist with the agency, said researchers had over the years produced a number of studies of Hawaii’s shorelines, using various methods of data collection and analysis. “Many were well done, but it is sort of mixing apples and oranges,” he said, referring to the need to adopt standard study methods. The new work aims to allow researchers to compare data from states around the country.
And though it seems self-evident that erosion must be tied to rising seas, “you have to document it,” Mr. Williams said. “Sea level rise is only one of the driving forces that control what happens at the shoreline.” For example, he said, on a beach that receives a steady influx of sand, “you can have marginal erosion or stable or even accreting shorelines.”
But that is not ordinarily the case in Hawaii, where the typical response to erosion has been to protect buildings with sea walls and other coastal armor. “It’s the default management tool,” Dr. Fletcher said. But in Hawaii, as nearly everywhere else this kind of armor has been tried, it results in the degradation or even loss of the beach, as rising water eventually meets the wall, drowning the beach.
He suggested planners in Hawaii look to American Samoa, where, he said, “it’s hard to find a single beach. It has been one sea wall after another.”
But the most common alternative approach, replenishing beaches with pumped-in sand, is difficult in Hawaii, where good-quality sand can cost 10 times as much as it does on the East Coast, Mr. Williams said.
Dr. Fletcher said he believes the answer lies in encouraging people to move buildings and other infrastructure away from the shoreline, a strategy coastal scientists call retreat. “If we want beaches we have to retreat from the ocean,” he said. But, he added. “It’s easy to say retreat; it’s much harder to implement it.”
Dr. Sallenger said he hoped the work in Hawaii and elsewhere would help policy makers.
“We don’t define what rules and laws are written about coasts and exactly how they are managed,” he said, “but this is information that can be factored into that process.”
I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post this past weekend in honor of Earth Week- I’ll repost the incredible articles written by friends and colleagues in drowning islands around the world this week as well. The full link follows the story.
Last year during a trip to the Marshall Islands, I met a man named Henry Romeu, an American coast guard who was on a mission in the Pacific Ocean. He monitored various pacific islands and their surrounding waters, monitoring fishing zone boundaries and reacting to various emergencies as they arose. As you can imagine, Mr. Romeu had interesting stories to tell, but it was one exacting comment about the power of the sea that stuck with me. With seriousness in his eyes he said “there is nothing immune to the ocean. Nothing.” These words were uttered just inches from the water’s edge, on an island in a country that hovers just above sea level. During my time there, residents recounted stories of flooding during particularly bad king tide storms where they fled to the tallest point on the island — a small bridge that takes just moments to walk across. They flock there because the Mr. Romeu was correct: nothing is immune to the ocean.
The vast majority of scientists agree that as the earth heats up, which is hastened by our consumption of fossil fuels and other human activities, warming waters and melting ice will raise sea levels and kill off protective coral reefs. The impacts of climate change are felt the world over, but some of the very least immune people on the planet are those that live in the coral atoll nations of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives. These coral atolls lie only a few feet above the sea, rendering them acutely vulnerable to intensifying storm surges, spoiled or depleted fresh water reserves, food security stresses, ocean acidification, water-level rise, and the other disastrous impacts of climate change. Other countries around the world, including low-lying coastal or riverside communities in the Arctic, Caribbean, Pacific and in Bangladesh, face similar dire circumstances. Each of these communities face similar impossible questions: how do we cope with the intensifying impacts of flooding and erosion? Who pays for the increasing weather-related disasters? Where do we move if we are left with no choice but to leave our homes? Why does climate change deal its toughest blows to those that contribute to it the least?
The expert community has few answers for these novel questions. At a 2011 conference entitled “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate” held at Columbia Law School, researchers and academics addressed these novel issues. They discussed where islanders would move, whether or not they would lose statehood status after relocation and the political turmoil that would surely follow when these Diasporas scattered around the globe. At the end of the conference, co-sponsoring representatives from the markedly vulnerable Republic of the Marshall Islands gave a rather alarming, heartfelt and sincere speech of clarification. In essence, the speech went like this: I am sorry if you have misunderstood, but we have not given up yet. We are staying on our islands and will fight for our home until the bitter end.
We have watched in horror and offered support to those that have suffered in recent tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. These are appropriate human responses to events that humans ostensibly have done nothing to bring about. Yet we seem to care very little for those around the globe that are threatened with what some call the “slow moving tsunami,” despite the fact that our action and inaction tragically hasten the submersion of land mass, societies and culture. I have had the incredible good fortune to walk among many of these people on their drowning islands, and I am continually struck by their lack of blame and their sense of hope. They do not point fingers at Westerners, asking why we continue emitting while we have been told that we are warming the earth and hastening sea level rise. They do not talk of relocation funds or lawsuits. Instead, they simply want to share their stories and the appreciation they have for the land they inherited. They gently remind me that this is not just an island problem, but a global issue, as nothing is immune to the ocean.
Tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a two week eco project in Grenada – a simultaneous greening of a historic plantation inn and the filming of a documentary which highlights Grenada’s tremendous accomplishments on the world stage of leadership in sustainability and climate activism. My team (of volunteers- are they amazing or what?!) consists of Jamie Jones (Photographer and Videographer), Aimee Gerot (Team Assistant and Liaison), Andy Meakins (Architectural Design and Planning), and Kody Jones (Construction Captain and Problem Solver). We are enthusiastic to participate in a project that is rooted in Grenada success and Grenadian talent- our lineup is packed with movers and shakers, including organic farmers, women small business owners, inspired politicians, and leaders in sustainability, just to name a few. I will post regularly – if you know of something in Grenada that we should know about, chime in!
(Note- this post will be located under the “special projects” tab)
I have never been to Saipan or walked on the beaches of the American Memorial Park, but this picture caught my attention this week (and apparently the attention of National Geographic). The shot is taken in, ironically named, American Park in Saipan, and the location is clearly losing topsoil, nutrients, and the ability to support plant life due to wave action. The photo is beautiful but sad, and reminds me of other locations I have seen around the world where trees give way over time to the sea. The photo of Saipan belongs to Mamang Sorbetero.
Link to short feature: http://news.yahoo.com/photos/national-geographic-your-shot-slideshow/national-geographic-your-shot-photo-1334189822.html
On a bright, gleaming Saturday morning walk in the small community of Rita, I met Eli and Mary Rose Silk, the Marshallese pastors of the Salvation Army Church. They were somewhat modest and soft-spoken, asking me to take pictures of the children around the church building rather than themselves. But they were generous and open in conversation- freely discussing their weather and water related experiences in the Marshall Islands and their thoughts on the future.
Pastor Silk: The weather is changing here- the tide has changed. Some places, like in Laura [this seemingly pristine, gorgeous point at the far end of Majuro], the tide now reaches the trees. The sand there washes away with the waves, and sometimes yards there flood now. When I was young, it wasn’t like that. It’s different now. The trees are flooded, and now they fall into the sea. The breadfruit are smaller now- nearly half the size they used to be. Some of the places we used to play in when we were young are gone. When we were young, there were occasional typhoons, sometimes people even died in the storms. But now, there is standing water in the streets after it rains, or when the tide swells.
I ask why now? Why the change?
Pastor Silk replies: As a pastor, I know that everything is under “him” [referring to God], and that the end is clearly coming closer, as evidenced by these increasing and intensifying weather events.
I want to delve deeper here, and ask: Do you think the end will come at a different time than, say, California?
To which Pastor Silk replies: Well, we don’t know, because it’s [climate] killed more people than in the Marshall Islands so far. Even though we live on very low land, we don’t see disasters like you have because of weather in California, like fire, earthquakes, or floods that you have elsewhere in your country.
I’m impressed and humbled by his insight here. Yes, of course we have climate-related disaster in our country, but you don’t hear us talking about with his candor very often.
I want to know more about what weather-related disaster looks like in the Marshall Islands. I ask about the King Tide season, from December to February when the seas intensify and the waves grow. Pastor Silk’s wife, Mary Rose Silk, perks up.
Mary Rose: Mothers get nervous, scared even, during this time. Our little children used to run around and play freely, but as the King Tide season comes now, with its storm surges and waves, we grab our kids and get inside. Sometimes they announce these storms on the radio now, and we’re told to evacuate our homes. It’s happened four times already this year. It never used to happen.
I ask if they believe that climate change is real-
Mary Rose, with conviction in her voice: Yes, I believe it’s happening because I’ve seen the changes.
She is emphatic and sincere. Pastor Silk seems more hesitant, like the question I’ve asked is more complicated and multi-faceted than the question I asked his wife.
Pastor Silk: [after a delay]… Yes, I believe it’s happening. But I mostly just depend on God. I try not to worry.
I probe a little on this, because it reminds me of a comment from James Bing III, a a young, thoughtful, smart Marshallese man in his 20s who I recently met with in Washington and who will appear on Drowning Islands soon. Pastor Silk happens to know James Bing III’s family, and so I mention that from James’ perspective, God may have promised that he would never flood the earth, but that he said nothing about what mankind would do. Many scientists believe that climate change is at least exacerbated by human activity, not God
Pastor Silk: Yes, God promises never to flood the earth again. Our island is low and small. But lots of the things going on in the world- we don’t see them here. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados… Why? Because he’s caring for us. But if we don’t believe in him or make him happy… that’s God’s problem and he’ll take care of it.
I ask if they think that Americans, Chinese, or Australians, for starters, should do something different about the way that we live in order to protect small islands.
Pastor Silk almost immediately responds, in a seemingly forgiving and generous way that only God can make this sort of sea-change. But Mary Rose seems troubled. She is quiet for a moment, then asks:
Mary Rose: Do you think that big places, big cities, are the ones that cause this problem?
I quickly confide that I am not a scientist, and that I am not able to crunch numbers and analyze weather patterns the way that those in meteorology and climate sciences can (and do). But, I hasten to add my parting words-
If changing the way that I live, if emitting less carbon and supporting governmental policies that encourage and enforce this sort of action MIGHT help the problem, then I will do it.
To this, they both vigorously nod.
[An important aside- Pastor Silk wants to read this blog, send and receive emails, and allow community children the use of their computer. However, their nearly archaic computer broke several months ago and they are awaiting funds to send it for repair in Honolulu. If you would like to help buy a new computer for this community, leave a comment or send me an email at email@example.com]
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.