With every major weather event these days, people understandably want to know if there’s a climate change connection. So here goes.
To get at the coastal flooding connection, let’s get the questions of snow and storms out of the way. On snow, please see my UCS colleagues’ excellent summary of the relationship between global warming and snow. In a nutshell: we should expect snow and snowstorms in a warming world, and sometimes in big ways because of increased extremes. In terms of extremes, please see the most recent National Climate Assessment for a discussion of the effect of global warming on the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, including major storms.
This leaves us with one direct connection between anticipated flooding and climate change, which we’ll get to below.
Here’s what to expect from Jonas and why:
Across the mid-Atlantic and into southern New England, Jonas could cause minor, moderate, and even major flooding. The most severe flooding is currently expected in both coastal and back bay areas of Delaware and New Jersey. As the National Weather Service warned residents across large areas on Friday, “THIS COASTAL FLOOD WARNING MEANS THAT MODERATE OR MAJOR TIDAL FLOODING IS IMMINENT. BE PREPARED FOR RISING WATER LEVELS AND TAKE APPROPRIATE ACTION TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY.”
Jonas will create storm surge, which in turn drives water ashore, causing flooding. There are several key things that drive storm surge—the shape of the coast, the direction from which the storm approaches, the ocean bottom, and others—but the primary driver is wind. As winds push surface water toward the coast over a long expanse of ocean, that water builds up and you have a “surge.” Stronger winds cause bigger surge. Larger storms push water over a larger expanse of ocean—a distance known as “fetch.” The larger the storm, the longer the fetch; the longer the fetch, the bigger the surge.
It is one thing to get wet; it is another to be pounded by the awesome power of waves. And amidst high winds and storm surge, very large and dangerous waves can result.
If we dust off the cobwebs, we recall that ocean waves are not the movement of water, but the movement of energy; this movement happens in an orbital motion across long distances of ocean. But in storms, we’re talking about a LOT of energy being transferred from the atmosphere to the ocean’s surface waters. And as this orbiting wave energy nears shore and encounters the ocean bottom, it is pushed higher, creating the bulging and cresting waves we see from the beach.
During a storm, the water can be pushed ashore with great velocity and to alarming heights. At approximately 1,700 pounds per cubic yard, it can do tremendous damage to what lies in its path. When these waves ride atop storm surge they can not only give the shore a greater pounding, but can reach farther inland on the back of the surge. (For more on the destructive force of waves, please see this 2013 blog by my colleague, climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel.)
Jonas is currently predicted to generate wave heights of 15 and 20 feet along the Jersey and DelMarVa (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) coasts. Now we have storm surge + waves. See this helpful (but scary) animation that shows how they combine.
But there’s more.
The extent to which sea water actually floods our coasts this weekend will depend on storm surge, waves, and tides. (If this storm were bringing rain, instead of snow, flooding would also be determined by that immediate freshwater input. Let’s hear it for snow?)
The impact of storm surge and the waves that ride atop it is far greater if the storm strikes at high tide. If a Category 3 hurricane arrives at low tide in a region with a 10-foot tidal range, far less water will reach onto land than if it had arrived at high tide. This is one reason that New York City was hit so hard by Hurricane Sandy and Boston was largely spared. Sandy made landfall in New York at high tide, and in Boston, close to low tide.
Jonas is expected to linger over parts of the East Coast through three high-tide cycles. So, high tide + storm surge + waves.
Twice a month, during the new and full moons, the earth, sun, and moon align and the combined gravitational force they exert on the earth’s oceans cause high tides to rise somewhat higher and low tides to drop somewhat lower.
Jonas is expected to hit during the full-moon tide, meaning that the high tide in places like Cape May, NJ, will be running roughly a foot higher than it was last week. So Jonas will have an additional foot of water, yet another, to work with along the mid-Atlantic thanks to the extra-high tide. So now we have full-moon high tide + storm surge + waves.
Global warming, by melting land-based ice and increasing water temperatures and causing thermal expansion, has caused an average sea level rise of about 7 inches around the world, since 1880. But that amount varies widely, based on local and global factors. The East Coast has seen some of the fastest increases, and the mid-Atlantic some of the fastest of all. During World War II, when my grandfather was sailing destroyers out of Norfolk Naval Base, a typical high tide there would have been roughly a foot lower than it is today.
So we have a dangerous weekend ahead, and we have a long, concerted push ahead to make our coastal communities safer and more resilient to inevitable storms and flooding. Stay safe everyone.
Featured image: Michael Dwyer/Associated Press]]>
This warmth is due to several things, including global warming.
Some recent coverage has muddied this point, so let’s help with the clean-up.
People are golfing and mowing lawns in Wisconsin. They’re gawking at cherry blossoms in Philly and D.C. My family recently played touch football in t-shirts on a field dotted with dandelions.
Day after day, popular outdoor spots in Northeast cities are transformed into a sea of naked arms, hatless heads, and the occasional bare chest, even as Christmas festoonery blinks incongruously nearby.
Santa, in an enigmatic move, was spotted water skiing in ice-free, snow-free, cold-free Buffalo, NY, and Coon Rapids, MN. My kids are saying things like “it’s practically CHRISTMAS!!” and “What the HECK??” And no one in my house has touched a mitten in weeks.
A friend and I recently traded notes about the previous night, when she had narrowly avoided the squashing of a non-hibernating frog, and I had squashed a non-waiting-for-spring-to-be-born mosquito.
The nightly news is covering black bears in New England who have put off hibernation to molest bird feeders. Bulbs are sprouting like its springtime and my March-flowering quince is December-flowering. There are scattered reports of birds acting badly: like the half-dozen species of warblers, who should by now be as far South as Central America, observed lingering on in Maine and thus courting death. And there are reports of monarch butterflies, as if they didn’t have enough problems, emerging in December in several New England states, briefly. Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, because migration is for suckers.
These things are due to the fact that it’s freakishly warm out there.
We’ve all experienced unusual warm spells. But these numbers help explain the unique nature of recent warmth.
In all, “nine of the first eleven months in 2015 have been record warm for their respective months”, reports NOAA. And we have yet to count December, which is still steaming away.
It’s warm and snowless because of El Niño and the Arctic Oscillation AND global warming.
Some recent coverage has muddied the connection and disseminated the idea (mainly through poorly worded headlines; unlike mine) that this heat is not the result of global warming. But of course the vital underlying fact is that we’ve already created a good deal of warming (1 degree C, as of these past months), globally, and so the climate phenomena that play out on the world stage today—like this Oct-Nov El Niño, the third hottest since 1950; and this fall’s warm Arctic, the highest land temperatures north of 60 degrees North since 1900—are inevitably playing out on top of, and being influenced by, these altered conditions.
The specifics of what’s happening where El Niño, Arctic dynamics, and underlying warming meet are, in a word, complex, and scientists are actively discussing how things might play out. But the collective bottom line recognizes that global warming plays a role.
NOAA’s Deke Arndt puts it this way, as reported by the Guardian: “Long-term climate change is like climbing a flight of stairs: over time you get higher and higher. El Niño is like standing on your tippy toes when you’re on one of those stairs. Both of those together work to create the warmest temperature on record. We would not be threatening records repeatedly if we had not climbed the stairs for decades.”
Studies suggest that global warming will cause the formation of more extreme El Niños. But whether it’s possible to pin this unusually strong El Niño or the ongoing behavior of the Arctic Oscillation on climate change, doesn’t diminish the role of climate change in what we’re experiencing, as the stairs analogy communicates.
2015 is the hottest year on record by a wide margin, topping 2014. 2014 became the hottest year even in the absence of El Niño. We’re climbing the stairs, picking up pace, and taking some two at a time.
So. Whatever we want to call December’s freakishly warm weather, whatever we’re tempted to call the punishing cold and snow that could follow, we ought not to leave out the global warming propping it all up.
Feature image: Tori Behr/Flickr]]>
It has been stunning to watch, at the same time, some here in the U.S. gear up to kill any deal our delegation would bring home. Playing politics-as-usual with the future. I don’t know if they could succeed, I don’t know if they can be stopped, but I know they should be ashamed.
Succeed or fail, what’s happening in Paris may be the most important thing to happen for our future in many decades. There are other problems to solve, and problems that are more immediate. Increasingly, many of us fear a future dominated by relentless terrorism, one in which climate change could seem like background noise. And yet the world watches Paris intently because we believe that so many of our hopes ultimately rest on global climate cooperation.
The things we want most of all, for our children, for the world, for our own humanity—peace, stability, security, happiness, less suffering, more thriving—these things depend on Paris because we can’t put our world through unchecked climate change this century and have them. We can’t have political and economic stability amidst climate chaos. We can’t have security (at least, not with liberty). We can’t have peace. And without these, what do we have?
We need Paris to succeed. It’s not that this meeting is our final shot at addressing climate change. If we fail, we’ll come back at it again. But each time we fail, our future success is increasingly a matter of degrees, literally and figuratively.
Paris is the latest attempt at a meaningful global agreement since the world voiced its collective concern about climate change in 1992. And in that time, as other attempts have come up short, we’ve left behind the era in which we had a range of choices for solving the problem and avoiding its more serious impacts (it was our move, and we didn’t take it), and we’ve entered the era in which we should work as hard as we can and still expect bad things. And if we don’t act we should expect worse things. Today, science and analysis tell us we can make big changes globally, they will be hard, and they will still not be enough, but we have to start somewhere, now, because the alternative is unthinkable.
This is not a world any of us would have actively chosen. But, passively, we made the choice. Now we have to fight back hard for the world we want.
It’s dire. It’s urgent. And somehow amidst all this, it’s hopeful.
Strong commitments from key countries. Bold leadership from influential political, religious, and civic leaders. Groundbreaking initiatives from business leaders, corporations, and nations. Moving displays by activists and every-day people. There’s a sense that we can do this, not simply out of self-preservation, but because to do this is right.
So we watch Paris, this towering, precarious human endeavor, we hope, we hold our breath.
With all that hangs in the balance, it has been stunning to witness politicians and political figures—and here I focus on those in my country, though there are others—attempting to fatally undermine it all: to debase climate science and climate scientists; discredit those who show climate leadership; seek to dismantle the federal and state climate and clean energy policies we have finally built; and undercut the international negotiating position of the United States.
It has left me speechless, but for one word.
It’s been rolling around in my mind for months, as the many shame-worthy examples accumulate. Here are a few from just the past couple of months, juxtaposed with some recent climate developments and extremes—not to blame each event on climate change, but to remind of the drumbeat of multiple events we’re dealing with.
Earlier this fall, many leading presidential candidates either denied climate change science or the value of emissions-cutting policies. In Congress, climate-denying Senator James Inhofe threatened to attend the Paris Summit, to complicate negotiations and stymie progress in person, and he has since sustained an active campaign to thwart U.S. participation in a global climate agreement.
While he was weighing his trip, the scientific community heightened its alarm over impacts of a warming and acidifying ocean. We learned that the vast coral bleaching event currently underway is expected to kill 15,000 square kilometers of reef around the world by next year. New science on krill and plankton, the base of marine foodweb, pointed to “traumatic changes.” Warm water in the North Pacific, record breaking in its temperature and persistence, continues to seriously disrupt marine ecosystems across large areas and to provide a harbinger of changes to come. Meanwhile, one of the strongest El Niños ever recorded roars on.
In October, In Washington D.C., Lamar Smith, as Chair of the House Science Committee (and a climate science denier) ramped up a series of open-ended and widely-criticized investigations into climate scientists, their research, and their funding agencies. Seven major scientific associations have pushed back but the situation continues.
Around the same time, a rare cyclone struck Yemen—the strongest ever recorded in this part of the Arabian Sea—dropping nearly a decade’s worth of rain and displacing thousands of people. A week later, a second cyclone took nearly the identical path. And in the Pacific, the strongest recorded hurricane to make landfall in the Western Hemisphere stunned experts with its rapid intensification and power.
In November, the Senate passed a resolution to kill a centerpiece of the President’s climate pledge: the Clean Power Plan, which reduces global warming emissions from power plants and gives us real legitimacy at the Paris Summit. This passed the House on Tuesday of this week. Though this will be vetoed by the President, the point—to send clear signals internationally that the Obama Administration’s Paris negotiating platform risks defeat at home—was made.
Elsewhere in November, the World Meteorological Association announced that 2015 would undoubtedly shatter records as the hottest year ever, topping the next hottest year, 2014. We also learned from NOAA that we had just seen the warmest October ever observed (in 136 years of records), and the “greatest departure from average of any month in the 1,630 months of recordkeeping.”
More recently, in another arm of their strategy, some in Congress have begun to try to block another vital aspect of our legitimacy at the negotiations—the funding we contribute to the Green Climate Fund. In a letter to the President, Senators Barrasso and Inhofe warned that this climate funding would be contingent on the Paris deal being submitted to the Senate for ratification – where it would surely be killed. (This funding, of course, is for developing countries to cope with the growing risk and damages of a problem the U.S. takes much responsibility for creating.)
While this strategy was being rolled out, historic “biblical” floods cut paths of destruction here in the U.S., and in other countries. And historic droughts rage on in California, and elsewhere around the world.
And just this week, following the president’s rallying speech to world leaders in Paris, some political figures lashed out at and mocked his level of concern for climate change.
That same day, I heard a story about the Quinault Native Americans, one of a growing number of tribes considering abandoning ancestral homes due to sea level rise. And I was reminded about the Marshall Islands, where the ocean floods people’s homes with growing regularity, and a mother wrote a now-famous poem to her infant daughter about taking courage in an indifferent world and fighting for your right to be.
There are many things to stand up for in this turbulent time. We don’t all need to be climate champions. But no one should be a saboteur of our best climate solutions.
I was struck one day, as a parent, by the idea that it is one thing to feel guilt; when our child feels guilty it means they know they made a bad choice. It is another to feel shame; shame says you are a person who makes bad choices, who does the wrong thing. Shame is about character. I’m calling out character.
We in the developed world all have climate change on our hands, and it doesn’t wash off. But as negotiations churn on in Paris and the world holds its breath, to undermine, to obstruct, to seek to kill our most earnest efforts to deal with our crisis—all from the comfort of first world privilege…
I need to know: have you no shame?]]>
If it feels like, suddenly, this extreme-tide flooding is in the news a lot, you’re not mistaken. But unlike other stories that take their place, even for years, in the news cycle, this story is not going away. Indeed, the role of extreme tides in coastal communities and beyond is inexorably growing. Welcome to the tidal flooding years—the reign of King Tide. Here are a few things to know about the flooding on display this week:
I’m guessing you know that. I blogged about it during last month’s tidal flooding, so I’ll be brief: tidal flooding events have quadrupled in some places in the last 30 years and according to both UCS and NOAA analysis we can expect substantially more of them in just the next couple of decades. In some cases, a 10-fold increase in the annual number of tidal flood events can be expected in 30 years’ time. This is happening because there’s more water in the ocean and, when the combined gravitational pull of the sun and the moon drives the tides higher (and lower) than average, that water has no place to go but onto otherwise dry land.
In cities getting used to king tide flooding, some of the tides we’re seeing recently and in the coming months may be surprising, with deeper, more extensive flood water, and recurring floods day after day. This was Southeast Florida’s experience last month when the extent of flooding took most people by surprise. “Emperor tides”, let’s call them, are expected on both the West and East Coasts of the U.S. through this spring.
The leading explanation comes from Dr. William Sweet, an oceanographer with NOAA, who points to El Niño. It works in different ways on those two coasts. In the Pacific, the connection between El Niño and sea level is more direct. Easterly trade winds normally blow strongly across the equatorial Pacific, causing warm water to pile up in the western Pacific and making sea level higher in the western Pacific than the eastern Pacific. When an El Niño occurs, it’s like a seesaw leveling out. The warm water that was piled up in the west sloshes eastward (and poleward) and raises sea level in the east. Add to this physical redistribution of water the fact that warm water takes up more space than cool water (when you heat water molecules, they get bigger!), and you have two reasons why El Niño brings higher sea levels.
On the East Coast, it’s more complicated, but it basically boils down to this: El Niño alters atmospheric pressure patterns and creates conditions where winds out of the North and Northeast prevail along large stretches of the coast for extended periods of time. This does two things: it pushes water ashore and causes it to “pile up” there, raising sea levels for months at a time, and it favors the development of nor’easters, which can cause flooding.
Sea levels are forecast to remain elevated through the winter and into spring, as El Niño continues to influence weather patterns. During that timeframe, the communities NOAA examined “may experience a 33 to 125 percent increase in the number of nuisance flooding days”. To provide a specific example: Sandy Hook, NJ, saw on average two days with tidal flooding in 1960. With sea level rise it now sees about 26 such days. In the period between May 2015 and April 2016, because of El Niño, NOAA forecasts 40 tidal flooding days.
As Dr. Sweet puts it “you take a high rate of sea level rise, you add astronomical high tides on top, then you throw in some atypical behavior by the Gulf Stream and prevailing winds, and we can be surprised by some pretty extensive sunny day flooding”.
Just when you think you know a planet…
More than just “water where you don’t want it”, tidal flooding brings salt water onto roadways and into yards and houses, which can damage automobiles, damage homes and belongings, destroy lawns and landscaping, etc. Here in Massachusetts, my uncle lost his truck to repeated trips through tidal flooding along the only access road to his and hundreds of other homes. In North Carolina last month, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, homes in one neighborhood were completely surrounded by tidewaters that washed away fences and stairways. When higher tides with a little wave action meet a natural or man-made barrier, like beaches, dunes, or seawalls, they can also cause erosion.
I’ve blogged on this, too, so see here for more info. But in a nutshell, in 30 years, more than half of the 52 communities UCS analyzed in our 2014 report can expect much larger areas to flood during astronomical high tides than today. As sea levels rise, an increasingly large portion of the daily tidal cycle will unfold on normally dry land, thus flood conditions will last longer. Thirty years from now, more than one-third of the locations we examined can expect flood-prone areas to be underwater 5 percent of the year.
The East and Gulf Coasts are vast, and we could look at only those 52 locations, but the fact that the rise in flood frequency is accelerating across most locations suggests that many places in between will need to brace for similar changes.
Welcome to the reign of the king tide.
Incredible images from Sean Compton of the coastal flooding out on HWY 80 #hightide #Savannah pic.twitter.com/AwXGy9QLZK
— WSAV News 3 (@WSAV) October 27, 2015
The way we get from 10 flooding events today to 240 in 2045 is that higher sea levels enable even garden-variety tides to reach inland. In 30 years, we project Annapolis, for example, will face more than 360 tidal floods a year, or roughly 30 a month, without substantial adaptive measures. Let’s play this out: So, in a typical month, these floods would tend to cluster around the new and full moon, bringing flooding over roughly 15 high tides. Closest to the new or full moon, we would expect some floods to be quite extensive; farther away, the extent of flooding would taper off. Viewed over a month, this could add up to roughly “one week on” and “one week off”.
This scenario begs the question: though some low-lying flood-prone areas would not be permanently under water by 2045 (or even 2085), some could flood so often that for all practical purposes, they would be ceded to the sea without big measures to deal with the water. As FEMA Deputy Administrator, Roy Wright, said at a coastal flooding summit this past weekend, communities will need to decide what they can live with, as well as what they can’t live without.
In this country, many people live within 3 feet of elevation of today’s high tide line—more than 1 million people in Florida alone, and the number is growing all the time. (So, add three feet to local sea level and those people’s neighborhoods are inundated. We could do that in relative short order.) At last count, 123 million people, or 40% of all Americans, lived in coastal counties. And if you put those coastal counties together (including the Great Lakes), they would represent the third largest economy in the world. A two-foot rise in sea level would put more than $1 trillion of today’s property and structures in the U.S. at risk of inundation.
Today, in fact, UCS released a report that speaks to the vast exposure of vital infrastructure to sea level rise and coastal flooding. Lights Out? looked at the electricity infrastructure in coastal zones and analyzed the exposure of power plants and substations to storm surge, today and in our sea level rise future. The results are a sobering reminder to take every opportunity to build infrastructure resilience, both to the major storm strikes and the gradually rising sea.
This week we mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, with the knowledge that people are still struggling in the aftermath and, for many communities, things won’t ever be the same. In light of the lasting damage of this and other storms, our willingness to continue to invest in at-risk areas is… a problem. Psychology, economics, politics and more are at play here. But even as we try to untangle those and ensure that coastal decisions reflect real risk, we should remember that unlike hurricane landfall, the upward and inland march of the tides is already in motion and accelerating.
A major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which the world hopes its leaders will achieve in Paris later this year, could slow the rate of acceleration and thus curtail land loss and other impacts later this century and beyond. But the sea level rise and tidal flooding of coming decades? We already bought it.
As I wrote earlier today, I spent this past weekend with a bipartisan group of 40 elected officials (19 Republicans, 17 Democrats, and a handful of independents) from coastal communities around the country who met to share experiences, advice, and ideas for the future in light of the growing threat of coastal flooding. Those 40 people are back home now, and it is flooding today, under sunny skies, in places on the West, East and Gulf Coasts. As I scan the National Weather Service flood advisories I see one after another of their regions affected. I’d like to give a nod to their hard work and leadership. And though the rest of us can’t make this problem go away, we can demand the same hard work and leadership on climate change, sea level rise, and coastal flooding from our federal leaders, too.]]>
This Rising Tides 2015 event capped off a week in which Hurricane Patricia exploded into our consciousness as the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Western Hemisphere, and scientists predicted that 2015 would be the hottest year on record. And while climate change and sea level rise might look more daunting by the day, local leaders are mobilizing. There has never been a meeting quite like this; amidst dismaying news, it’s something to cheer, even as we double down on the hard work ahead.
Rather than recap, I’ve tried to let the event speak for itself through the words of some of the participants in the room.
First, here’s some of what you need to know to put this meeting in context.
Globally sea levels have risen roughly eight inches since 1880. Regionally and locally, some places have seen two, three, and four times as much sea level rise—for example, more than 8 inches in Norfolk, VA, since 1970.
Locally, sea level rise has led to steady increases in tidal flooding events—for example, a more than 5-fold increase in Charleston between the 1970’s and 2010’s. These changes are the result of melting land-based ice and warmer (expanded) ocean water – i.e., global warming.
As climate scientist and UNH professor, Cameron Wake, put it “places like Hampton, New Hampshire, where we’re meeting today, have witnessed sea level rise in recent decades—it’s increasingly visible; depending on the tides, sometimes it’s in the streets—and the rate of increase is only accelerating.”
This week, as many participants mentioned, coastal communities will again see so-called “king tides”—instances when, because of astronomical factors, extra-high tides can flood low-lying areas. That flooding has in fact begun. These instances are becoming more frequent and extensive with rising sea levels, according to recent analysis of the problem by UCS and NOAA, and more importantly, to the real-life experience of thousands of coastal residents.
To put it lightly, this trend is a problem. And a problem that’s landed in the lap of local leaders. In his remarks, Jason Buelterman, Mayor of Tybee Island, Georgia, spoke of flooding at high tide and the repeated closure of the one road in and out of his community.
State Delegate Robert Brown echoed this experience from his rural district south of Charleston, SC: “the king tides are causing havoc.”
In Maine, State Delegate Bob Foley of Maine, spoke of his town’s prized beaches suffering from “major erosion.”
Donna Holaday, Mayor of Newburyport, MA spoke of the risk each winter brings of another coastal home falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
And in Hampton Roads, said State Delegate Christopher Stolle, “it’s hard to name a time when our area wasn’t impacted.”
And then, there are storm surge impacts. Leaders from New Jersey to Texas spoke of the devastation and the hard road to recovery that has followed Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Sandy, and others, and their concern about the future. “None of us can afford to wait for the next crisis” said Jeff Collier of Dauphin Island, AL.
The problems, these leaders know, are getting worse.
Sea level rise is accelerating and on track to increase between 1 and 2 feet globally by mid-century, and between 1.5 and over 6 feet by the end of the century. In his keynote remarks, Rear Admiral Jonathan White presented UCS analysis of historic tidal flooding and said that if we want to know where this goes, we should expect steep increases in the decades ahead. We can also expect some low-lying areas to become incessantly flooded and, in time, permanently inundated.
But many coastal areas also expect major development and population growth. For example, Robert Zapple, County Commissioner of New Hanover County, NC, described his region, bounded by the Atlantic on the East and Cape Fear River to the west, as facing a 50 percent population increase in the next 15-20 years. FEMA’s Deputy Associate Administrator, Roy Wright, cites one projection for a doubling of structures in coastal flood zones in the next 80 years.
And as these trends continue to converge, local leaders expect a sea of challenges at the community level.
Participants in this weekend’s meeting were trying to see what’s coming and help their communities prepare. And it’s complicated, as we heard from participants who seek but usually don’t find the simple, slam-dunk resilience-building measures. Coastal armoring, for example, may feel necessary to community A, but may have substantial, untenable consequences down the coast in community B. But elected officials can’t get stuck in complexity and bad news. The people gathered in Hampton are acting where they can.
And from the federal level, participants heard from NOAA Administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, about a range of agency initiatives, including a forthcoming tool to provide communities with complete, real-time information on flood drivers, dynamics and conditions. And they heard from Roy Wright, Deputy Associate Administrator for FEMA, about that agencies ongoing efforts; in a highlight of the meeting, the dialogue that followed during Q&A served to break down some key misunderstandings between local and federal administrators.
As FEMA’s Roy Wright put it, sea level rise is forcing communities to ask the very hard questions of “what can your community live with?” and, vitally, “what can’t your community live without?” Through their remarks it was clear that these local leaders are actively trying to answer both of these questions. But also clear that when they arrive at answers, their communities will inevitably need help, both in living with the water and in securing those things they can’t live without. They had advice for each other:
Climate impacts are hitting us sooner and harder than we expected, and 40 people in a room aren’t going to save the day, nationally. But the elected officials gathered in Hampton, NH, are getting down to the hard work of seeing what the future holds and leading their communities through hard choices, toward important progress.
The event has garnered lots of attention, and though none of the 2016 presidential candidates—all of whom were invited—chose to attend, they should take note: this is what leadership looks like.]]>
Later this month, thirty-five elected officials from both parties—as well as a number of independents —will gather on the New Hampshire seacoast to discuss coastal flooding, its impacts on their communities, what they can do, and what they need state and federal leaders to do to help. This group is comprised of a roughly even number of Democrats and Republicans and several independents. They represent 19 out of the 23 U.S. coastal states. They include mostly mayors, but also city councilors, county commissioners, and state legislators, and they represent a range of perspectives. Listen up, elected officials of America! Regardless of who’s debating what in Congress, these people are living in the non-partisan world where constituents are dealing with coastal flooding. And many of them not only understand the realities of sea level rise, they see it all the time, and they’re showing what real leadership looks like when confronted with confounding challenges.
You can check out the list of participants here. Some participants, like those from South Florida, have just witnessed extensive king tide flooding, with several days of road closures and fish swimming in feet of water on Fort Lauderdale streets. Others, like those from the Carolinas, have just weathered unprecedented coastal and inland flooding as storms collided over already saturated areas. The staggering damage in South Carolina results from flooding that has been called “unprecedented and historical”, “biblical”, a “thousand-year event” and “one of the worst natural disasters in state history”. But science tells us that, with climate change, those terms no long apply to many extreme events. In reality, we’re being hit repeatedly with weather events that were previously considered rare. That is our climate change reality.
Our coasts—where sea levels, driven by global warming, are rising at an accelerating rate—provide some of the starkest examples of this. In many locations, previously rare tidal flooding has quadrupled in the past forty years, to become a more regular occurrence. And astute leaders are asking what to expect as sea level rise drives tides higher still. A 2014 UCS report found that, in many locations where tidal flooding currently occurs a handful of times a year, we can expect a tripling or more in flood events in fifteen years, and a ten-fold or greater increase in thirty years. By 2045, in the lifetime of a home mortgage, one third of the locations we analyzed (17 in total) can expect 180 or more tidal flood events per year. And these are not the only risks of sea level rise.
As we outline on our website: Roughly a third of the U.S. population—more than 100 million people—live in coastal counties. The risks to coastal states include:
In light of the stark bottom-line that sea level rise science is revealing, astute leaders are asking what they can do to respond.
That’s what the New Hampshire summit is about: exploring what’s happening and what local leaders can do. During the 2-day gathering, participants will hear not only from one another, but also from the Administrator of NOAA, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan; from the U.S. Navy’s Rear Admiral White; from FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation, Roy White; and from NOAA Oceanographer and one of the world’s leading coastal flooding researchers, Dr. William Sweet. What they’ll hear from these experts, and from each other (including NH leaders who are hard at work on this problem) will help achieve one of the Summit’s core goals: to “equip local elected officials with new information, ideas and relationships they can use to better serve the people back home”.
And, taken together, the event promises to be a demonstration of widespread concern and leadership on the issue of sea level rise. It will stand in stark contrast to the absence of widespread concern and leadership at the federal level, including in Congress, but also on the part of most presidential candidates. People up and down our coasts are waking up, under sunny skies, to high tide in their front yards, in flooded parking lots, and on closed roads, and are living with our very big, very real sea level rise problem. The rest of America’s leaders need to wake up to this, too.]]>
It started in some places on Saturday – salt water creeping onto roads and sidewalks, into basements and businesses. It continued under the supermoon eclipse. And over the last several days, we’ve had repeated demonstrations of the new reach of the tide – and we should expect it in places for several days to come.
Yes, this is a “king tide” – one of those instances when the moon exerts a slightly stronger tug on the tides than normal. It happens several times each year. This one even has a cool astronomical twist that you can read about here. But in certain affected places it is some of the biggest tidal flooding in memory. We should get used to it, says the latest science. With sea level rise, the highest tides are only getting higher, and the flooding they bring is only getting more frequent.
Here’s a round-up of some of the flooding seen, so far:
One vital piece of this phenomenon – the astronomical piece – is just doing what it does. Stronger tides twice a month with each full and new moon. Stronger still a few times a year with the lunar “perigee” (when the moon is closest to the earth and exerts a stronger gravitational tug). And there’s that additional celestial factor, too, which amplifies the tides further every 18 or so years (Thanks, EarthSky for the great coverage).
The other vital piece though – the ocean – is simply taking up more space, and the tides have nowhere else to go but onto roads and into backyards. Here are the basics:
UCS released a report last fall illustrating how the tides alone, riding on higher seas over the next 15 and 30 years, have the potential to reshape how and where people in affected areas live, work, and otherwise go about their daily lives. And by causing certain areas to be regularly flooded, sea level rise has the potential to effectively claim land decades before that land is projected to be permanently underwater. We need to understand what we’re dealing with and start responding.
We found that, as sea level rises, the number of tidal floods, their extent, and their duration, all increase steeply in the overwhelming majority of our locations. In addition, new locations that are currently unfamiliar with tidal flooding join the tidal flooding front line. Here’s a sample:
Plenty of communities are no stranger to this flooding. The video below introduces us to their experience. And plenty of others will be joining their ranks as sea level rises. This is not a matter of speculation. It’s a matter of the steady (and accelerating) march of high tide, and it’s really only a question of what’s in its path. With the increasing frequency and reach of tidal flooding in recent years, we’ve had fair warning. So this week, as we trade supermoon photos and gripe about the limitations of smartphone cameras, keep an eye on those tides. It’s not every day you get a glimpse of the future.]]>
By the time I got to work, I knew about another little boy whose mother had tied his shoes on a recent day and had perished with him in the Mediterranean. We wouldn’t know about them, except that this little boy washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. His photo, where he lies as if for a nap in his crib, save for his shoes, is haunting minds around the planet.
To write about this in this moment is audacious, I know. But having been a witness to this slow-but-steady human crisis, more audacious is all the not-writing. In this blog post, in clumsy earnestness, I try to say what I see. And yes, I have an agenda: it’s man’s humanity to man.
I work on climate change, but for me this is not a climate change story. It’s the story of war and terror and desperation; of parents and children waking and going to sleep at night gripped with dread; running away, but toward the unknown. It’s the story of what people will do for those they love: anything. It’s about moral failure. It is staggeringly complex and would take a thousand voices to do it justice. But it’s also, I believe, the unfolding story of the 21st century, to be magnified a thousand-fold if we let it.
I’m a white, middle-class American woman and on a global scale, one of the more comfortable people alive. I quote Ta-Nehisi Coates with some trepidation because I know the parallels between us are few, and yet when he tells his son “You must never look away from this,” I want to tell mine the same. Our sons are different and yet, maybe the “this” is ultimately the same.
About a decade ago, a group of scientists published work on scenarios of our future, and one of them—fortress world—has stuck in my mind, in part because signs of it crop up all the time. In this scenario, as global crises worsen, elites of the world hunker down in comfortable enclaves while the vast global majority suffers. Since then, post-apocalyptic fiction and film has fed versions of this scenario to us repeatedly, perhaps because we see its origins and are morbidly curious about where this ends. It ends badly, that’s where, so someone grab the wheel.
Here’s where climate change does factor in. From where many Americans are perched, the last fifty or so years have been relatively easy. That is changing in modest but important ways—e.g., increased flooding, storm damage, drought—and we are already flailing somewhat haplessly, slow to adapt and, until recently, slower to mitigate. We need to urgently get our act together, because the next 50 years are going to be much harder in terms of climate impacts and are going to determine whether we let climate change start spinning out of control for centuries to come.
But we urgently need to get our act together, also, because the tragedy we’re witnessing, the heartbreak we’re feeling, and the anti-immigrant reactions we’re seeing as today’s refugee crisis unfolds are potentially just the opening lines. It’s complicated. But climate change could displace more than 100 million people this century because of sea level rise alone. To say nothing of displacement from the conflict and war that could be waged over increasingly stressed resources. In this scenario, millions of people, millions of children, get cast into the most fraught and dangerous circumstances, and human suffering comes to define our century. Let’s not.
I am connecting this tragedy to this seemingly disconnected global trend because the science tells us we should expect large human populations, real people, to be caught in the crush of climate impacts. And if we despise this idea, we’ve got to fight its unfolding.
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his son “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” I believe this holds true on the global stage. And when the IPCC dryly relays future trends in disruption and displacement, I remind myself that we’re talking about real people, their hard work and their hopes, their livelihoods and lives, their very bodies.
Are we up to today’s moral challenges—from immigration, to poverty, equity, human rights, climate change, and back again? We have to be if we’re to keep humanity intact in the face of tomorrow’s challenges. I don’t have tidy steps to take. It will take a thousand voices to craft lasting solutions to the migrant crisis, none of them mine.
But solutions to the climate crisis are on the table. Will they help people fleeing in boats or abandoning villages today? No. But if we apply them to their fullest, we can hope to ease climate’s exacerbating role in human suffering as this century unfolds.
The nations of Europe are gripped in a struggle for solutions today. The nations of the world will grapple with climate action when they meet in Paris later this year. Pope Francis will deliver a moral imperative message on climate, poverty, and equity when he addresses Congress later this month. The rest of us can engage and push and challenge our leaders and ourselves. There may be a point in human history when we are overtaken by events, but how about we, especially we who are so blessed and well-rested—the tie-ers of happy children’s shoes—say not in our time.
To find immediate, practical ways to help refugees seeking safety in Europe, this list of actions and organizations is a useful resource.
Update (Sept. 8, 3:15 p.m.): In response to excellent feedback I have received, I’d like to expand on my statement above: “This is not a climate change story.” This story is indeed about much more than climate change. However, there is a strong climate dimension playing out even today, and there has been some good analysis done to explore this connection. Those desiring to stem the movement of people from homes and homelands they would otherwise not wish to leave will need to understand the present and growing role of climate change. That connection was not effectively made in my blog—my thanks to those who have flagged this for me.]]>
Katrina damaged much of the U.S. Gulf Coast and devastated the city of New Orleans. Storm surge as high as 27.8 feet struck Mississippi and Louisiana.
Importantly, the storm was just the beginning of the disaster. The levees that protect New Orleans failed 50 times due to inadequate foundations, erosion, and overtopping. Overall, about 80% of New Orleans flooded, up to depths of 20 feet. It would take 43 days to drain the flood waters. All of this was exacerbated by inadequate planning and preparedness that led to woefully insufficient evacuation, search and rescue, and public safety procedures.
Overall, 1,833 lives were lost in the storm and immediate aftermath. Over 400,000 were displaced. New Orleans lost over half of its population.
By 2014, New Orleans’s population had only rebounded to 76% of its pre-Katrina size. The 2010 census recorded a vacancy rate of 25%, most of which is concentrated in flooded neighborhoods. The National Flood Insurance program paid $16.3 billion in claims, while private insurance paid an additional $41.1 billion. Official federal relief and recovery expenditures total more than $137 billion and damage to the economy totals $148 billion (2012 dollars).
There are bright spots in the story of recovery. In some ways, New Orleans is a more functional city, with better governance and civic engagement including the establishment of professionalized Flood Protection Authorities over the old levee boards. In August 2010, New Orleans completed its Master Plan, and in May 2015 it passed a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Prior to Katrina the city did not have a Master Plan and its Zoning Ordinance lacked teeth, which added to the confusion and controversy during the rebuilding effort after Katrina. Another success is the establishment of the City Assisted Evacuation Plan. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana has engaged scientists and stakeholders to generate a comprehensive Coastal Master Plan that strives to think long term, and includes sea level rise.
But all the great deltas of the world are under acute threat, and ours, which is both sinking from lack of sediment and facing rising seas, is no exception. We have understandably chosen to dig in and hold on, and good people are working hard to make it work, and to make the right long-term decisions. But there are strong indications that the reality of sea level rise and disaster risk is harder than we’re forcing ourselves to face.
As an example, I must cite again the State of Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan—a landmark 50-year plan, praiseworthy in many ways, to restore the coast and reduce risk.
The plan is based in part on what the state calls a “moderate” scenario of sea level rise (SLR), namely a 10-inch increase by 2062 above 2009 levels. The Master Plan looks at local land subsidence (sinking) separately from sea level rise in these projections, so it’s not fair to compare this rate with localized rates from NOAA and the U.S. National Climate Assessment (e.g., 24 inches by just 2050, including subsidence). But if we compare this 10-inch increase to NOAA’s moderate (intermediate high) global SLR projection, we see that a 10-inch increase can be expected globally by 2040, more than two decades earlier.
The Master Plan also includes a “less optimistic” scenario of 17 inches by 2062, which I would characterize as perfectly optimistic, since NOAA’s scenario moderate scenario reaches 17 inches roughly a decade earlier. It makes one wonder how much of a voice Louisiana scientists had in the process.
To be fair, the Master Plan notes that recent science will require them to revisit their projections in the future. But some locals I’ve spoken with are frustrated that the most serious of the three scenarios was left out of state communications about the “hard choices” Louisiana residents must make. So it’s more than fixing what goes into the process; it’s also allowing the results to come out.
By 2062, the difference in land lost between the moderate and less optimistic scenarios is nearly 1,000 square miles. And I’m suggesting there are more square miles not accounted for. All of those square miles matter to people. Find them on a map and you’ll see people live there, people who have already been through terrible times. But people on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana would presumably prefer to know (and many of them already do), that even if the Atlantic never brews another hurricane, they’re unlikely to be able to stay indefinitely in their homes.
This 50-year plan has a price tag of over $50 billion dollars, which the state will be hard-pressed to pay and with which the federal government will be asked to help. As a country, we must be all for getting down to the business of preparedness, and all for finding ways to pay for it. That’s one of the most important promises we made to ourselves, post-Katrina. But we should insist on serious, lasting preparedness efforts, and investments that are truly viable over time, so we can keep such promises.
Until the Coastal Master Plan reflects best available science, it’s not in a position to deliver on those, and real preparedness for the next storm will continue to elude Louisiana.
In our lives, when someone close to us dies or suffers serious illness or injury, we promise ourselves that we’ll honor them by doing better. As a nation, our impulse is the same. We want to do better. After 100 people died in 2003 in The Station nightclub fire, for example, the National Fire Protection Association enacted new code provisions and crowd management requirements in similar venues. It’s our follow-through that, as a nation, is often lacking, though, no matter how devastating the tragedy.
So how have we honored the losses and suffering of Katrina, nationally? The federal government has taken some major and important steps in the last couple of years. As have certain cities and states, perhaps most notably, New York State and NYC, though clearly in the wake of Sandy.
But the default, our reality, is still business as usual along much of our coasts. And business as usual—that is, acting as though the sea hasn’t risen and won’t keep going—is risky business.
Let’s consider New Jersey, which has the memory of Katrina and the punishing first-hand experience of Sandy to guide its coastal decision making. Just last month, New Jersey adopted major changes to its Coastal Zone Management Rules that, according to the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, “do not consider the effects of sea level rise; incorporating sea level rise into the permitting process is critical if it is to meet its goal of not putting the inhabitants of the New Jersey shore at risk.” This follows on a trend of rapid re-development in highly vulnerable places, such as the Barnegat Peninsula.
On the West Coast, one group’s mapping points out the multitude of construction projects proposed for flood-prone land in San Francisco. Reuters reports that Galveston, Texas, approved 81 out of 85 applications to build closer to the beach than allowed by state law, despite its long history of hurricanes and susceptibility to sea level rise.
This kind of analysis has yet to be done for Miami, but on a recent trip there, I heard multiple times that of the more than 40 new major, high-rise constructions already underway—additions that will transform the area skyline—none is being built to account for sea level rise. Whether 40 or 4, this represents magical thinking in the Magic City. The last real devastation Florida saw from a major hurricane was Andrew, in 1992. Thankfully. But in that relative quiet, coastal Florida has gained over a million people. Are the nearly 5 million people living along the Florida seashore prepared for a big storm?
If you’re reading this in a coastal community, chances are you can look out your window and see ways that we are unprepared for sea level rise and unprepared for the next storm. I can. We can’t prepare overnight but we’ve had 10 years since Katrina and not enough progress to show for it. People died in that storm. People endured harrowing days. People’s lives were forever shattered. And people struggle mightily still to recover.
The Atlantic will send more storms our way, and studies suggest they may grow stronger still in the years ahead. Those storms can strike almost anywhere on the Gulf and East Coasts. We should honor the experience of Hurricane Katrina with real adaptation action, and real climate mitigation, and never forget a chief reason: that next storm is coming, and there will be real people in its path.]]>
Esquire recently published a story about people whose day jobs deal with the end of human civilization. I’m not going to challenge the despondency of that piece; my colleague has already done a solid job of that. I’ll just say I was reminded of a quote from Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel is explaining the design of their album cover: “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”
But Esquire is still on to something, and I’m here to talk to my fellow end-of-days day-job people.
Trying to avoid the end of the world has been my day job for more than 15 years. There are other more soul-crushing occupations out there, no mistake, but when you have an end-of-days-day-job (let’s go with EDDJ), and you’ve been flat out for months, and your Zen veneer is wearing thin, things can go south fast. You know what I’m talking about, you bitter misanthrope. I’ve seen your bulging forehead veins as you hurl bad words out the window of your Nissan Leaf.
But I feel you. Vacation time.
Your vacations matter in a special way, EDDJ folks, and need to be managed accordingly. I say this because, for one, you go into them a hollow-eyed husk of a human and you come back from them more normal. Taking vacation is essential for you, and your taking vacation is essential for the people who have to put up with you. Other people being able to stand you is important to your happiness, longevity, career… so you see the virtuous cycle here.
It’s science: EDDJ people need vacations.
But not any vacation. You need RELAXING vacations. The kind of break that can gradually restore your basic civility and sound judgement, maybe even your good humor. And here we encounter a problem, because you don’t take the kind of vacations that most of your fellow Americans would find relaxing. Say, a cruise, or a flop at an all-inclusive resort.
No, nothing so simple. Sure, you hit the beach, but you also stroll old boardwalks, you visit barrier islands, you camp in forests and along rivers, you hike snow-capped peaks, you fish for trout, you bird watch, you see historic landmarks and heritage sites, you go in search of charismatic mega-fauna or fall foliage.
Your idea of vacation, in other words (and as the above links show), sends you right into the teeth of the climate mega-bummer just when you need to chill the most, and there you risk being chewed up and spat back into your EDDJ, completely unfit for human contact.
Here’s where I come in with some tips for having the kind of summer vacation you need. To maximize your vacation relaxation, we must identify and avoid your climate triggers. Luckily for you, I’ve been testing these methods for the past decade. Tell your family from me, you’re welcome.
No strife, no stress. Maybe your vacation pulls you inexorably into contact with climate-rejecting friends and relations—the über-trigger. First, let’s review the definition of vacation.
va·ca·tion (vā-kā′shən, və-)
1. A period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation, especially one with pay granted to an employee.
But for those with non-refundable rental deposits, let’s not see you menacing anyone with a bocce ball. There’s a better way. I offer my friend’s wisdom on playing nice with extended family. And I amend this wisdom with my own tip: citronella bark collars, for you and your adversaries; get the water-resistant ones for the pool; don’t take them off.
Let go, or be dragged. Chances are you’re a climate vigilante and a trigger for you is when people leave climate out of places it belongs. Like when, say, the commentator during your whale watch gives a long list of things that are threatening the marine food web, but leaves off climate change. Or when the Aquarium’s coral reef exhibit goes on about coral bleaching but never mentions rising water temperatures.
Surreal and frustrating, we get it. We’ve all been there, and some of us have made some bad choices our kids like to remind us of. But let’s agree to be more constructive going forward, which in turn enhances our level of relaxation. Have your friends or family call ahead and explain you to the whale watch people; spend more time at the touch tank next time; leave your Sharpies and your diamond-tipped etcher at home—accuracy enhancements are still vandalism. These are just suggestions, but they can keep a person out of jail, and most people find jail unrelaxing.
Location, location, location. A motel too close to the ocean is no good, for example. You’ll ask questions about elevation above mean higher-high water, flood prevention measures, repetitive losses and taxpayer bailouts, and the owners will put your name in a book in case you try to rent next year.
Don’t feel bad, all our names are in someone’s book, somewhere. But do make better choices. My rules of thumb for choosing where to vacation are to avoid anything semi-arid, equatorial, small island, alpine, deltaic, estuarine, anyplace actively burning, anywhere above latitude 60, anything to do with frogs, and stay out of the taiga.
Vacation dining. Most people like to eat out on vacation, and most people pick up a menu and see tasty options. You pick up a menu and see our dystopian descent: shrimp = ecosystem collapse; crab cakes = climate-assisted invasive species; a hamburger = methane + all that is wrong with the world.
I recommend making your own personal pocket dining guide and gifting it to everyone you might conceivably dine with. The invitations will taper off but you’ll have less explaining to do when you ask for dandelion greens and water, no straw.
Dialing back. If one of your triggers is the stunning beauty of nature, it’s pretty obvious that this is a place you should dial back. I’m not saying don’t picnic, hike, or camp. But when you hike, bring Sudoko, some balsa wood for carving, or maybe a small loom so you can stop and occupy yourself while the others continue on for the really breathtaking views. If you vacation in May when the warblers are passing through, singing their hearts out, reach for your noise-cancelling headphones. Busy yourself with food prep while others go to fish for the doomed, I mean, brook trout. It’s so simple, really.
Sit this one out. And if you’re just in a really dark place, and who hasn’t been, you might want to cut nature out altogether and consider the stay-cation. Crap out on the couch or hammock for a week with a stack of suitably neutral reading material. Which reminds me: EDDJ people should completely eliminate the following genres from their summer reading lists: science and nature (see above), travel guides (see above), cookbooks (see above), dystopian fiction (aka science-based future history), self-help (we already know what’s wrong with you, it’s called lack of a binding international climate agreement), and satire. Non-triggering alternatives are young adult and gardening.
This list is a starting place. You may have other triggers. Feel free to share them and we can work through this together.
I’m confident these tips will help you have a more relaxing vacation and allow family and friends to enjoy you more, too.
And that’s really the point. They need us to be able to shake it all off and we need to, as well, in order to do our jobs well. As Klara, the wife of Jason Box (the EDDJ scientist profiled by Esquire), put it: “I’d say climate change, and more broadly the whole host of environmental and social problems the world faces, does affect his psyche. He feels deeply about these issues, but he is a scientist and a very pragmatic, goal-oriented person. His style is not to lie awake at night worrying about them but to get up in the morning (or the middle of the night) and do something about it. I love the guy for it :)”.
To all you EDDJers, from my smote-black heart to yours, I love you for it, too. Have a good vacation.]]>