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Sea Levels Are Rising: It's Time to Decide Which Coastal Cities Are Worth Saving

Ice cubes the size of American states are melting into the ocean; we face frightening scenarios and tough choices for coastal habitation.
 
 
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Since April Fool's Day expired, there has been nothing but bad news about Earth's various ice shelves circulating through the news. Antarctica's Wordie and Larsen ice shelves? The first is simply gone, and the second is disappearing fast. How about the Connecticut-sized Wilkins shelf? It has fragmented into polar pieces after the ice tether holding it to the Antarctic peninsula snapped this week, signaling that the Earth is undergoing some profound changes. 

So what do melting ice shelves a world away have to do with the rest of us? That is where the fools come in.

"This continued and often-significant glacier retreat is a wakeup call that change is happening," USGS glaciologist Jane Ferrigno explained in a joint United States Geological Survey and British Antarctic Survey on the melt. "Antarctica is of special interest, because it holds an estimated 91 percent of the Earth's glacier volume, and change anywhere in the ice sheet poses significant hazards to society."

In other words, giant ice cubes the size of American states melting into the ocean should worry everyone on Earth living in a territory with a coast, and even those without. That includes California, which went under the climatalogical microscope in a recent Pacific Institute analysis on sea-rise bankrolled by the California Energy Commission, California Department of Transportation and the Ocean Protection Council.

Mashing together data on exponential polar melts, rising seas and coastal development, it came to a relatively reasonable conclusion.

"Sea-level rise will change the character of the California coast," Pacific Institute Senior Research Associate and study co-author Heather Cooley, tolddrow AlterNet. "My sense is that there are areas we will protect and areas we will abandon. We need to begin the process now."

The Pacific Institute's analysis is a sobering combination of science, statistics and maps illustrating the ravages of inevitable sea rise that will result once the Antarctica and Arctic melts pass their tipping points, so to speak.

But scanning its Google Maps mash-up of California's drowned cities feels like something out of science fiction. A Californian myself, I noticed more than a few areas housing my relatives and friends inundated by the Pacific Ocean, but that's just a personal tragedy.

A greater civic devastation comes sharply into focus once you notice all the schools, ports, hospitals, treatment facilities and Environmental Protection Agency-regulated sites, police and fire stations and much more that will no longer be part of the land, but a permanent resident of the ocean floor.

And that's not counting the various commercial developments, finished and otherwise, or the money that went into planning and building them, that will be lost forever.

Spend an hour looking at the maps and cycling through scenarios from San Francisco to San Diego, and you feel a dystopian shudder crawl up your spine. Of course, California is but a microcosm of a greater global peril ushered into being by our unwinding climate crisis.

Wall Street, a few meters above sea level, will also be swallowed, along with much of New York City, as ocean circulation winds down in the Atlantic, subjecting the Northeast to hyperviolent storms and surges. (Of course, given its role in our current "econopocalypse," few might not consider that such a bad thing.)

Another world away, southern Africa has been swamped by floods worse than anything the region has experienced in decades, which has killed over 100 and made 100,000 homeless.

Closer to home, North and South America are on alert to sea rise: From New York and Florida to Mexico, Brazil and beyond. Climate change will irrevocably alter the landscape and claim thousands, if not millions, of lives, if nothing is done to ameliorate the inevitable.

Which is where the Pacific Institute study comes in, which was designed to be as much a land-use manual as a climatalogical study.

It floated several recommendations to attack the problem head-on, including obvious remedies like limitations on coastal development and abandonment of at-risk areas, as well as more complicated ones like stopping federally subsidized insurance for regions likely to be drowned.

But first and foremost, says Cooley, is dealing with the reality of what is coming.

"We first need to ensure that all new developments integrate future sea-level rise into their designs. This should be done immediately," she said. "Communities must then conduct local analysis to determine what is at risk and what they want to protect. All stakeholders must be involved in this process.

"And by involved, I do not mean simply holding public meetings. Adapting to sea-level rise may require some difficult decisions, and it is important that the decision be made by those that will be affected."

Not that it is going to be that easy. Just explaining the problem, let alone the solutions, will be difficult.

"Communicating the risk of flooding can be challenging," Cooley said. "It is likely not something that people will understand immediately. Public education is needed to begin the process."

The public will need that education to wrap its head around a problem that has plagued other regions of the world, from Bangladesh to the Netherlands, for centuries.

Indeed, the Pacific Institute's report even considers constructing Netherlands-style seawalls and levees, at the cost of billions, although Cooley takes pains to point out that it is far from a panacea.

"Seawalls may be appropriate in some areas," she explained. "However, they do have adverse consequences. First, the footprint of the structure can result in a loss of beach. Second, seawalls fix the position of the shoreline, thereby drowning the beach in front of the structure and resulting in a loss of recreational opportunity and habitat."

But leaving behind 20th century staples like coastal development and recreation, and even some habitat, may be the right price to pay for saving California.

Whatever we decide to do with the Golden State, Cooley and crew suggests we do it quickly. There’s no time to waste, given that we've already wasted so much energy, money and atmosphere living our lives outside of the reality dictated by our natural environment.

After all, the Pacific Institute's study is but one in a long line of climate clarion calls that have gone mostly unheeded by local and national governments. Cooley hopes that is not the case with her organization's report.

"I have heard of some local agencies that are already beginning to use this information to inform their planning," she said. "The report is still fairly new, and it remains to be seen if this will become the exception or the rule. But there are risks to putting off action on sea-level rise. Continued development in vulnerable areas will put more people, infrastructure and property at risk. It will also increase the cost of protecting those areas."

In the end, California will probably be forced, like so many other territories, to literally retreat from a problem it has put off for far too long.

And while the Pacific Institute's analysis stopped short of recommending a mass migration inland, its fearsome future maps offer little other alternatives.

Like other global "envirogees" set adrift by climate crisis, Californians will have to change their concept of home, and not just those living on the coast. Once its already-terrible drought worsens and firestorms, lightning strikes and more torch its lands, California as we know it could end, replaced by something far more terrible: A ghost state.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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