November 5, 2009

A Rational Look at Sea Level Rise

The one thing that is the most certain about climate change, is that no matter what happens, we’ll have to adapt. In fact, even if the climate doesn’t change a lick, adaptations will take place, aimed at improving our overall health and welfare by either better protecting us from, or taking better advantage of, the prevailing climate conditions. Such has always been the case, and such always will be.

This is something that global warming alarmists either fail to understand, or fail to acknowledge.

Consider the dire warning that anthropogenic climate change is going to lead to a global food crisis. This scenario is predicated upon the “dumb farmer scenario” in which agriculturists around the fail to respond to changing climate conditions, and instead hold on to old, failing ways, as the climate changes around them. The “dumb farmer” scenario, should more aptly be termed the “dumb forecaster” scenario, because such an assumption illustrates a glaring disconnect between theory and reality. People adapt to change.

Another grossly inaccurate claim which totally ignores our adaptive response involves sea level rise. Al Gore likes to show maps of what coastal areas look like presently, and what they would look like assuming a multi-meter sea level rise. A dramatic section of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth showed some before and afters of coastal locations under Gore’s scenario of a 20 foot sea level rise that would happen “[i]f Greenland melted or broke up and slipped into the sea—or half of Greenland and half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea.” For a dose of reality, a recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters pegged the current rate of sea level rise contributed by Antarctica and Greenland combined at 6 inches/century. How inconvenient.

No matter what, is that Gore’s pictures will never represent reality for the simple reason that we won’t let them. Do you really think that the powers that be will let a large portions of Manhattan Island sink beneath the waves like Gore depicts? Of course not. Instead, appropriate responses will take place to protect the high-priced development there. This will happen not only in Manhattan, but in most places where we have already invested a lot of time, effort, and money.

This was the conclusion recently reached by a team led by EPA sea level rise researcher Jim Titus, who has been working with land-use planners up and down the eastern seaboard to determine how various areas along the coast will be impacted by sea level rise—whatever the magnitude.

Titus’s team categorized all the dry land along the East Coast that is within 1 meter of sea level into four categories—developed, intermediate (likely to be developed), undeveloped, and protected from development. The first two categories were considered land-use types that would be largely protected from sea level rise by human intervention—raising of the land, or holding back the sea. These categories make up about 60% of the low-lying coastal land area between Florida and Massachusetts.

The remaining 40% of the low-lying land area is potentially flooded by rising oceans at some point in time. This is considered good by Titus et al. because it allows for natural processes to respond to rising sea levels (i.e., letting ecosystems migrate inland). But only about one-quarter of it is currently protected by conservation requirements. The other 3/4th (or 30% of the total land area within 1 meter of sea level) is currently unprotected. Titus et al. would like to see as much of this unprotected land as possible left alone (or moved into conservation).

The major point Titus et al. are trying to make is that now is the time to be thinking about the how to designate land use for the future in light of rising ocean levels. This sounds like a pretty rational approach because, it is virtually certain that sea levels will continue to rise into the future. Starting to talk about how to best prepare for this eventuality is a good thing.

Contrast this with the irrational approach that shows urban areas under 20 feet of water and demands that human greenhouse gas emissions need to be immediately curtailed to prevent this.

Here is what Titus et al. have to say about that favorite technique of the Al Gores on the world:

We hope that [our work] can help to change the way people think about rising sea level. Researchers and the media need to stop suggesting that Manhattan or even Miami will be lost to a rising sea. That’s not realistic; it promotes denial and panic, not a reasoned consideration of the future. Our maps show some of the choices coastal residents face, but losing Manhattan is not one of them.


Titus, J. G., et al., 2009. State and local governments plan for development of most land vulnerable to rising sea level along the US Atlantic coast. Environmental Research Letters, 4, 044008, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/4/044008,

Velicogna, I., 2009. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L19503, doi:10.1029/2009GL040222.

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