Dan Grenet (left), the manager of Seattle’s West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, leads Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee of a tour. The visit was intended to highlight the costs of climate change; in this case, as a result of seawater incursion at the facility. | credit: Ashley Ahear
SEATTLE — When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wanted to show the connection between climate change and an unpleasant and costly consequence for his constituents, he decided to tour a sewage treatment plant.
Inslee’s visit Tuesday to the West Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Seattle’s Discovery Park was the latest stop on his statewide tour to raise awareness about the costs of climate change.
The problem the governor wanted to highlight: climate change is causing sea levels to rise. And that means homes and buildings that were built a safe distance from the water’s edge are increasingly becoming too close for comfort.
No one complained about the smell as treatment plant workers and managers led Inslee and other visitors through the facility. But there was a lot of talk about the problems with rising sea level.
Dan Grenet, the manager of the facility, showed Inslee some photographs hanging in the lobby. Waves crash over a cement wall.
“This is a photograph of Puget Sound coming into our facility – causes big problems in our pumps and piping systems and also, it’s a biological process here,” Grenet told the governor. “It doesn’t do well with salt water. Causes big problems.”
Saltwater intrusion could cost King and other shoreline counties tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades.
But during this visit, as with other stops on his climate change tour, the governor emphasized that the costs of climate change will hit from all directions.
“We’ve had $50 million in costs for fighting fires. Tens of millions of dollars of damage to the oyster industry,” Inslee said. “And here we don’t have an estimate at West Point but we know it’s significant because we know it’s not just this point its all these ancillary pumping stations that are going to have to be if not rebuilt, refortified to deal with sea water intrusion.”
Inslee’s latest task force on climate change has been charged with developing a plan to put a price on CO2 emissions. The plan is expected be presented to the state Legislature this fall.
Note: Being Frank is the monthly opinion column that was written for many years by the late Billy Frank Jr., NWIFC Chairman. To honor him, the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington will continue to share their perspectives on natural resources management through this column. This month’s writer is Ed Johnstone, treasurer of the NWIFC and Natural Resources Policy Spokesperson for the Quinault Indian Nation.
By Ed Johnstone, Quinault Indian Nation, NWIFC Treasurer
OLYMPIA – Our planet is talking to us, and we better pay attention. It’s telling us that our climate and oceans are changing for the worse and that every living thing will be affected. The signs are everywhere. The only solution is for all of us to work together harder to meet these challenges.
We are seeing many signs of climate change. Our polar ice caps and glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. Winter storms are becoming more frequent and fierce, threatening our homes and lives.
It is believed that we are witnessing a fundamental change in ocean and wind circulation patterns. In the past, cold water full of nutrients would upwell from deep in the ocean, mix with oxygen-rich water near the surface, and aid the growth of phytoplankton that provides the foundation for a for a strong marine food chain that includes all of us.
The change in wind and ocean patterns is causing huge amounts of marine plants to die and decompose, rapidly using up available oxygen in the water. The result is a massive low oxygen dead zone of warmer waters off the coasts of Washington and Oregon that is steadily growing bigger, researchers say. Large fish kills caused by low oxygen levels are becoming common, at times leaving thousands of dead fish, crab and other forms of sea life lining our beaches.
Low oxygen levels and higher water temperatures are also contributing to a massive outbreak of sea star wasting syndrome all along the West Coast. It starts with white sores and ultimately causes the star fish to disintegrate. While outbreaks have been documented in the past, nothing on the scale we are seeing now has ever been recorded.
We are also seeing basic changes in the chemistry of our oceans. Our atmosphere has been steadily polluted with carbon dioxide for hundreds of years. When that carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, those waters become more acidic and inhospitable to marine life. Young oysters, for example, are dying because the increasingly acidic water prevents them from growing shells. Researchers say that ocean acidification could also amplify the effects of climate change.
Because we live so closely with our natural world, indigenous people are on the front line of climate change and ocean acidification. That is part of the reason that native people from throughout the Pacific region will gather in Washington, D.C. in July for our second First Stewards Symposium. Tribal leaders, scientists and others will examine how native people and their cultures have adapted to climate change for thousands of years, and what our future—and that of America—may hold as the impacts of climate change continue.
President Obama’s commitment to addressing adaptation to climate change in a real and substantive way is encouraging. Tribes stand ready to partner with the Administration and others any way we can to protect our homelands and the natural resources on which our cultures and economies depend. Only by all of us working together – supporting one another – will we be able to successfully face the challenges of ocean acidification and climate change.
Humanity’s difficulties dealing with climate change trace back to a simple fact: We are animals. Our cognitive and limbic systems were shaped by evolution to heed threats and rewards close by, involving faces and teeth. That’s how we survived. Those systems were not shaped to heed, much less emotionally respond to, faceless threats distant in time and space — like, say, climate change. No evil genius could design a problem less likely to grab our attention.
This is a familiar point, but some new research on sea level throws it into sharp relief. Let’s quickly review the research, and while we do, keep this question in the back of our minds: “Does this make me feel anything? Even if I understand, do I care?”
Sea-level rise is a vexed issue in climate discussions because everyone wants to know where sea level’s going to be in 2050, or 2100 — years that we can, at least dimly, imagine. I’ll still be alive in 2050, presumably, and my kids or grandkids in 2100, with any luck.
The problem is that it’s much easier to project long-term sea levels than short term. It’s difficult to nail down the near-term timing of “nonlinear” (abrupt) events involving, say, ice sheets, but over a few thousand years, it all evens out. A century just isn’t that long in climatic terms.
A team of researchers led by Anders Levermann at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has done something novel. They said, screw the short term. We know that CO2, once it’s in the atmosphere, is effectively permanent. We know that for a given level of CO2 concentrations, eventually you get a given temperature, and for a given temperature, sooner or later sea level will rise to adjust. When you raise the temperature, you “lock in” a certain amount of sea-level rise, even if you don’t know exactly how quickly it will happen.
So Levermann and co. set out to determine how much sea-level rise gets locked in for every degree that global average temperature rises. They modeled all the main drivers — thermal expansion (warm water expands), glaciers melting, the Greenland ice sheet, and the Antarctic ice sheet — and then compared the results to the paleo data to make sure they matched up with the patterns in the historical record (they did).
This is, scientifically speaking, easier to do that predicting short-term sea levels. “On a 2,000-year time scale,” they say, “the sea-level contribution will be largely independent of the exact warming path during the first century.” A lot of stuff that might be abrupt or unpredictable over the next century or two washes out over the long-term.
So what’s the verdict? Long story short, for every degree Celsius that global average temperature rises, we can expect 2.3 meters of sea-level rise sometime over the ensuing 2,000 years. (U.S. translation: for every degree Fahrenheit, 4.2 feet of rising seas get locked in.) We are currently on track to hit 4 degrees Celsius by 2100, if not sooner. That means locking in 9.2 meters, or 30 feet, of sea level rise. Suffice to say, that would wipe out most of the major coastal cities and towns in the world.
There you have it: If we stay on our current trajectory, by the end of the century we will ensure the eventual destruction of our coastal developments. But! That destruction will happen at some point over the next 2,000 years. Maybe not for 100, maybe not even for several hundred, long after you and your children and your grandchildren are dead.
Do you care? Should you? Should you mobilize and put lots of money and effort toward an emissions-reduction regime that will prevent it? If you knew you were committing the place you live to destruction in 100 years, would it move you to action? What about 200 years? 500? 500 years ago was 1513, the year Juan Ponce de León “discovered” Florida and claimed it for Spain. I wonder if he worried what would happen in 2013.
Sea-level “lock in” is happening 10 times faster than sea-level rise itself, but thanks to the long time lag, it’s even more invisible. To bring it a little closer to home, Ben Strauss at Climate Central follows up on Levermann’s analysis by examining what sea-level rise might mean for America. (It’s a preview of a new paper that will be published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) [Editor’s note: Strauss is on Grist’s board of directors.]
There’s grim news right up front:
To begin with, it appears that the amount of carbon pollution to date has already locked in more than 4 feet of sea level rise past today’s levels. That is enough, at high tide, to submerge more than half of today’s population in 316 coastal cities and towns (home to 3.6 million) in the lower 48 states.
That’s a done deal. Those places are effectively doomed. But the choices we make today will have huge repercussions on sea levels to come:
By the end of this century, if global climate emissions continue to increase, that may lock in 23 feet of sea level rise, and threaten 1,429 municipalities that would be mostly submerged at high tide. Those cities have a total population of 18 million. But under a very low emissions scenario, our sea level rise commitment might be limited to about 7.5 feet, which would threaten 555 coastal municipalities: some 900 fewer communities than in the higher-emissions scenario.
If we take heroic measures, we could lose “only” 555 American towns and cities to the ocean. Whee!
If we do nothing and stay on our current trajectory, over 1,400 are threatened, including:
Nationally, the largest threatened cities at this level [50 percent submerged at high tide] are Miami, Virginia Beach, Va., Sacramento, Calif., and Jacksonville, Fla.
If we choose 25 percent [submerged] instead of 50 percent as the threat threshold, the lists all increase, and would include major cities like Boston, Long Beach, Calif., and New York City.
So, yeah, lots of American places are screwed over the long term. But how long? I mean, if it’s in 2,000 years … who knows if humanity will even exist? By then, surely the robots will have taken over.
Strauss addresses this question:
The big question hanging over this analysis is how quickly sea levels will rise to the committed levels. Neither Levermann and colleagues’ analysis, nor my new paper, address this question.
In a loose analogy, it is much easier to know that a pile of ice in a warm room will melt, than to know exactly how fast it will melt.
Levermann and company do put an upper limit of 2,000 years on how long it will take the sea level commitments described here to play out. Recent research indicates that warming from carbon emitted today is essentially irreversible on the relevant timescales (in the absence of its massive-scale engineered removal from the atmosphere), and will endure for hundreds or thousands of years, driving this long run unstoppable sea level rise.
On the other hand, our sea level rise commitment may be realized well before two millennia from now. The average rate of global sea level rise during the 20th century was about half a foot per century. The current rate is 1 foot, or twice that. And middle-of-the-road projections point to rates in the vicinity of 5 feet per century by 2100.
Such rates, if sustained, would realize the highest levels of sea level rise contemplated here in hundreds, not thousands of years — fast enough to apply continual pressure, as well as threaten the heritage, and very existence, of coastal communities everywhere. [my emphasis]
OK, so we’re probably talking hundreds instead of thousands of years. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that business as usual will put Miami under water in 100 years.
What is Miami worth to us? What will it be worth to the humans of 2113?
It depends, I would say, on what you think of those 2113 humans. Most people assume that humanity is going to experience a continual rise in wealth, technological sophistication, and living standards. That’s certainly the assumption baked into most economic models. If it’s true, the people of 2113 are going to be immeasurably more wealthy than us. Perhaps they’ll live in floating cities, or space stations. Perhaps they will drive amphibious vehicles. Perhaps they will leave their corporal bodies behind entirely and live on as clusters of electrons in Google data centers. What need will they have of Miami? They have transcended Miami. At any rate, we’re not inclined to worry about them. They’ll be better prepared to deal with the loss of Miami than we are to prevent that loss. Or so the thinking goes.
But there’s another way of seeing it. What if, as many people fear, we are churning through irreplaceable natural capital and our descendents are going to have less to work with than we do? What if our descendents face a world of resource shortages, insane weather, and denuded biodiversity? What if they need all the help they can get? If that’s true, it seems unthinkably irresponsible to allow a huge swath of our invested energy and capital to wash away in the sea.
What do you think? Do you care — really feel it, in your gut — that we’re in the process of consigning hundreds of American towns and cities to destruction? What does being a good ancestor mean to you?
Protecting nature is the best way of protecting ourselves from rising tides and storm surges, according to new research.
Sand dunes, wetlands, coral reefs, mangroves, oyster beds, and other shoreline habitats that ring America help to protect two-thirds of the coastlines of the continental U.S. from hurricanes and other such hazards.
Developers see these coastal areas and think — *ding* *ding* *ding* *ding* — opportunity. They want to replace shoreline habitats with waterfront homes, shipping channels, highways, and other delights of urbanism and commerce, along with hulking concrete structures designed to keep the rising seas at bay.
Or, another idea would be to leave nature intact and let it continue to shelter us.
Led by Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project, researchers mapped the intensity of hazards posed to communities living along America’s coastlines from rising seas and ferocious storms now and in the decades to come. They examined the hazards those communities would face in the year 2100 with and without the coastal habitats left intact. Here is what they found:
Habitat loss would double the extent of coastline highly exposed to storms and sea-level rise, making an additional 1.4 million people now living within 1 km of the coast vulnerable. The number of poor families, elderly people and total property value highly exposed to hazards would also double if protective habitats were lost.
The East Coast and Gulf Coast would feel the largest impacts from depleted ecosystems, because they have denser populations and are more vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge.
Florida would see the largest increase of people exposed to hazards by 2100 under one sea-level rise scenario highlighted by the researchers. If coastal habitats were preserved, about 500,000 Floridians would face intermediate and high risk from disasters, compared with almost 900,000 people if the habitats disappeared.
New York sees one of the biggest jumps as a percentage of people facing risk under the same scenario. With habitat, a little more than 200,000 people would face high risk, compared with roughly 550,000 people without habitat.
But what’s wrong with building seawalls, levees, and such? Couldn’t such infrastructure allow builders to develop the shorelines safely, keeping rising waters at bay? The paper explains some of the problems with that approach:
In the United States — where 23 of the nation’s 25 most densely populated counties are coastal — the combination of storms and rising seas is already putting valuable property and large numbers of people in harm’s way. The traditional approach to protecting towns and cities has been to ‘harden’ shorelines. Although engineered solutions are necessary and desirable in some contexts, they can be expensive to build and maintain, and construction may impair recreation, enhance erosion, degrade water quality and reduce the production of fisheries.
So let’s maybe thank nature for protecting us by leaving it intact, yeah?