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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.

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.

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