January 14, 2005

Life Imitates Fiction

Who would believe it? Christmas morning we began reading our gift copy of Michael Crichton’s global warming novel State of Fear. The villain implausibly, we thought, believes the effects of a tsunami will sway an international climate change conference. Then, within a week, the Voice of America is linking tsunamis and global warming by featuring an academic who voices alarm because of sea level rise (likely measured inches) in relation to tsunamis (measured in many tens of feet) .

Happy New Year along the climate change beat! On January 3, 2005 The Voice of America moved a story linking vulnerability to tsunamis and global warming using a quote from Naomi Oreskes, an associate professor of history at the University of California. “The tsunami that struck the Asia and Africa coastlines,” she says, “highlights the need to take action on global warming.” Why? Because so many people live in harm’s way. A massive inundation like the South Asian tsunami, on top of a rise in sea level due to global warming, only can make things worse, she surmises.

“Nick Drake” lives! Here is real-life environmental demagoguery, someone willing to ride the climate change issue on the back of stark human tragedy.

Mathematics obviously isn’t Ms Oreskes’ strong suit, nor is fact-checking (a definite weakness in an historian). Her supposition is far afield. There are lots of data concerning sea-level rise and tsunamis. Let’s begin with that generated by the Topex-Poseidon satellite, an orbital system designed to precisely measure sea levels worldwide. According to a 2001 paper by Cecile Cabanes in Science, sea levels in the northeastern Indian Ocean are falling, not rising (see Figure 1). Admittedly, the record is very short. It only begins in 1993. So Cabanes goes on to relate temperatures measured by submarines to the satellite-sensed sea levels. She was able to calculate global changes back to 1955, or roughly the start of the Cold War. While the entire record does yield a sea-level rise for the same region, it’s about half the length of your index finger, or 1.75 inches (see Figure 2).

Sea Level Rise
Figure 1. Observed sea-level rise from 1993 to 1998 measured by the Topex-Poseidon satellite as reported by Cabanes et al. (2001). Sea level declined a slight amount in most of the region damaged by the December 24, 2004 tsunami (outlined by the black square).

Sea Level Rise
Figure 2. Observed sea level rise from 1955 to 1996 reported by Cabanes et al. (2001). Sea level rose a total of only about 1.75 inches throughout most of the region damaged by the December tsunami (outlined by black square).

From what we know at this early juncture, the maximum onshore height of the recent tsunami appears to have been around 40 feet. The estimate could go higher as scientific researchers begin their measurements within the most devastated regions. Our point? Under such circumstances the increased sea-level increment global warming added was 1/274 that of the tsunami.

Krakatoa Island disappeared beneath the ocean after its volcano explosively disintegrated on August 26, 1883. Indonesia took the brunt of the resulting tsunami. In his 2003 book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded Simon Winchester recounts how ‘the wave’ was between 110 and 120 feet in height. The additional increment of inundation contributed by sea level rise, if that were to happen today, would be 1/788 of the total. That’s the math Ms Orestes can’t do.

But, as a true-believer she could be expected to argue that it’s future sea level rise we need be concerned about. Alright. The best estimate of the future rate of global warming is that it will be very close to that already established; according to the umpty-billion dollars of climate research money spent to date. That translates into an increment of about four inches of sea level rise within the next fifty years. While no one can reasonably guess what it will be after that, human energy technologies likely will be very different 100 years from now. They’ll no doubt be much more efficient. And there’s no guarantee they’ll even be based on fuels that, when combusted, result in greenhouse gas emissions. So it probably will be as irresponsible then, as it is now, to conflate the effects of tsunamis and global warming.

You’d think a respectable academic willing to pontificate about the significance of the tsunami and global climate change might care to know the numbers concerning the nugatory nature of global warming compared with seismic inundation. Why would anyone ignore available facts? We’re becoming increasingly convinced it’s because of the way scientific research is funded nowadays. Different fields of research compete with one another for the monopoly largesse of Uncle Sam as the sole-source funding provider. The threats posed by things like global warming, AIDS and chemical additives must be characterized in the starkest possible terms. You won’t get research money if you propose research that suggests there may not be much of a problem. But to find equivalence between four inches of water and forty or a hundred feet of it plumbs new depths. Crichton’s onto something; we’re living in a State of Fear.


Cabanes, C., A. Cazenave, C. Le Provost, 2004. Sea Level Rise During Past 40 Years Determined from Satellite and in Situ Observations. Science, 294, 840-842.

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