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Book review: Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact by Hunt Janin and Scott Mandia

Posted on 7 November 2012 by Andy Skuce

"My other piece of advice, Copperfield," said Mr. Micawber, "you know. Sea-wall height twenty feet, maximum storm surge nineteen feet six inches, result happiness. Sea-wall height twenty feet, maximum storm surge twenty feet six inches, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and — and in short you are for ever flooded."

With apologies to Charles Dickens for the paraphrasing.

Wilkins Micawber knew from his own experience that a small but persistent excess of spending over income eventually leads to disaster; in his case, debtors' prison. Similarly, a small and sustained rise in sea level—once it is combined with unusual weather and high tides—can push ocean waters, quite literally, over a tipping point; as the people in New York and New Jersey, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, have just witnessed.

Michael Mann has remarked that sea levels around New York are about a foot higher than they were a century ago.  One foot may seem small compared to everyday waves and tides, but as we have seen, this sustained change to the baseline can make all the difference between a bad storm surge and a disastrous one. And, of course, the effects of an extra foot of seawater, compared to no water at all, is a very big deal indeed when that water is lying on a farmer’s field, your living room floor or an airport runway. The best estimates of future sea levels predict several additional feet of sea-level rise in New York over the next few decades: the recent flooding in the US north-east is a just a taste of things to come.

New York's La Guardia Airport, October 29, 2012. Source 

Among the three big consequences of human abuse of the atmosphere—climate change, rising seas and ocean acidification— sea-level rise is the easiest to visualize; yet we have lacked a good book on the subject suitable for the general reader. Until now.

Authors Hunt Janin and Scott A. Mandia have provided us with a comprehensive guide to the causes and consequences of rising seas with their excellent new book. In Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact, they explain the basics behind the science of climate change and how a warming world will inexorably produce higher sea levels due to the thawing of the giant ice sheets and the expansion of the warming seawater itself.

Hunt Janin is an American writer living in France who has published scholarly works on a wide range of subjects, from medieval history to cross-cultural studies. Scott Mandia is a professor of physical science at the Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York and is the co-founder of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. Together, they have produced a timely book on a vital subject and one that is accessible to the general reader. It is well-referenced and scientifically accurate.

In addition to their coverage of the science, Janin and Mandia devote great attention to the impacts of sea-level rise on coastal cities (e.g., Miami, New York, London and Venice) and entire countries (Tuvalu, Kiribati). Most critical is the threat to some of the megadeltas in the developing world such as the Nile, the Ganges-Brahmaputra and the Mekong. Not only are these deltas home to many millions of people, but they also provide irreplaceable agricultural land. Because of the complex shapes of their islands and channels, deltas are difficult areas to protect from rising sea levels. A compounding problem is that deltas are areas of natural subsidence, a process accelerated by human activities such as pumping groundwater and, ironically, flood control measures that increase erosion and change sedimentation patterns.

Mr Micawber is also known for his optimistic expression "Something will turn up!". Janin and Mandia's concluding message is that it would be folly for us to rely on wishful thinking when it comes to sea-level rise. Our fossil fuel emissions have caused the rising trend and it is entirely up to us to both slow the process down and to protect ourselves from the harm that it will bring. Rising seas will impose a huge economic burden of adaptation on the world, burdens that rich countries may be able to shoulder, but that may be crushing for poor countries such as Bangladesh. Sea-level rise will be a dominant factor shaping the economic, social and even physical geography of the next few centuries. Rising Sea Levels provides an essential backgrounder for this unfolding global crisis.

Note: Hunt Janin and Scott Mandia have previously commented or contributed at Skeptical Science.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Here's an interesting thought. Any improvements to coastal defences taken to protect against future tidal surges will involve heavy use of earth moving machinery, cement production, quarrying, dredging etc. This will involve the burning of considerable quantities of fossil fuels :-(
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  2. Look, we need to immediately reduce GHG emissions. If we want to avoid even worse disasters than we already face we must act now. But yesterday Climate Progress posted a piece on a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers. In that report they made the case that we, the world, are nowhere near reducing GHG at a rate that will limit warming to 2 degrees C. It is not the only report that makes that point and I have seen studies that suggest that even if we could stop at 400 ppmv of CO2 we would still experience 2 to 3 degrees. So we must assume the world will continue to warm, the oceans will continue to warm, the ice sheets, ice caps and glaciers will continue to melt and the sea will rise. I think this is an important book but people must realize that cutting emissions will not prevent sea level rise. We must prepare now for the inevitable. We must decide if we want to take on the huge economic burden to save the low lying cities, low countries, and mega deltas. You cannot construct massive levees, seawalls, and storm surge barriers in a few years. You need to decide if you are going to raise streets and buildings. You need to consider reengineering utility infrastructure. You need to investigate if your subway can still run if sea level rises 1 to 3 feet. You need to plan how your sea ports will function with higher sea levels. It is a massive undertaking and I hope this book addresses those issues. Simply reducing GHG emissions will not prevent the inevitable and I am reminded of something a civil engineer said about levees. There are only two kinds of levees: those that have failed and those that will fail.
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  3. Tricky years ahead. How to thread the legal needle of acknowledging necessities imposed by climate change via legislative guidance, policy, budget authority and all the myriad implementation details of civil government, while simultaneously refusing to assign culpability for the needlessly exaggerated scale of the problem? 20+ years of being the subject of a campaign of confusion intent on procrastination is going to cost a terrific amount of money to amend, but nobody's going to be on the hook for reimbursement. The Godzilla of amnesty programs, truly. Refusing to speak the names that must not be uttered will also make it objectively more difficult to do the work of coping with climate change. Thinking about a topic is harder when broad swathes of facts are sanctioned from consciousness. We're very generous with these concessions. Will we be thanked? Probably not.
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  4. I am wondering if insurance companies will be leading the charge now. They may well refuse to insure parts of the east coast of the US, meaning property owners won't be able to rebuild, and their land will become worthless overnight. Then you can imagine people demanding insurance from the government, and threatening legal action if none is forthcoming, but I suspect they would lose that battle. But this will happen all over the world, as many cities are now "in the wrong place". Practical decisions will have to be made to either defend or abandon. Hopefully the rise will be slow enough for an orderly retreat.
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  5. Thanks to being torn between forces opposed to reality and reality itself, at least in the United States insurance companies find themselves in a quandary. They're at risk of large liabilities and being sued by customers if they do reference climate change, while simultaneously facing the threat of shareholder lawsuits if they don't. They're not getting much useful assistance or guidance from the domestic side. More details here. In other parts of the world insurers and re-insurers are biting the bullet and getting past this difficult moment, employing correct arithmetic as accounting practice demands. Wishful thinking doesn't show up in balance sheets, P&L, etc.
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  6. I am wondering if insurance companies will be leading the charge now. They may well refuse to insure parts of the east coast of the US, meaning property owners won't be able to rebuild, and their land will become worthless overnight. Then you can imagine people demanding insurance from the government, and threatening legal action if none is forthcoming, but I suspect they would lose that battle.
    I know several NSW local government staff are wondering about their councils' legal liabilities for future flooding damage from sea level-related events now that the conservative NSW government has ditched the 2009 Labor policy that had previously required councils to consider IPCC projections of sea level rise. Their concern seems to be that without this instrument with which to justify prevention of ill-advised development, they will bear the cost of damage when people who chose to construct or to buy badly-sited buildings suffer the inevitable damage and can't get their insurance companies to pay up. Or who couldn't get insurance in the first place. I'm not au fait with local council by-law practice but I'm wondering if it's possible, when there are no state legislations to protect them, for councils to make through by-law an explicit part of the permission-to-develop the condition that developers and buyers of flood-risk properties carry themselves all responsibility for future damage resulting from sea level rise. And that such responsibility is transferred with explicit and informed notification to future owners of these properties. By its very nature poperty threatened by sea level rise is usually owned and/or developed by people with considerably more wealth than most, but who are also not averse (and in fact are predisposed) to holding others responsible for the cost of damage to their properties - properties that were acquired by ignoring the best advice of scientific experts. Pre-empting this welfare-for-the-privileged by holding them a priori responsible for their own decisions is surely the most logical and the most fair way out of this mess.
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  7. Does anyone knew when or if this book going to be available in E-book form for the Barnes and Noble Tablet?
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  8. More sobering facts about sea level rise to ponder… “Sea level along 600 miles of the Atlantic coast from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston has risen three to four times faster since 1990 than it has globally, says a U.S. Geological Survey study published in June. That alone is enough to add 8 to 11 inches to the global average this century.” “Sea level on the Atlantic coast has risen since the late 19th century at the fastest pace in 2,000 years, the University of Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Horton, Yale scientist Andrew Kemp and colleagues showed. East Carolina University geologist Stanley Riggs’ team found a similar trend in northeastern North Carolina.” Source: North Carolina's coast is 'hot spot' for rising sea levels by Bruce Henderson, The Charlotte Observer, Nov 4, 2012
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  9. John@8 More important quote from this article is:
    Hurricane Sandy stayed well off the North Carolilna coast but still overwashed N.C. 12, which runs through the Outer Banks, in three places. Winter storms could turn those sites into new inlets, said Stan Riggs of East Carolina University.
    That means the typical every-season weather is already affecting NC coast. A strong proof undermining those moronic legislators in NC looking for nothing but greed & money.
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  10. We all know that average global sea level rise primarily results from melting of land based ice and thermal expansion of seawater. We also know that land based ice is melting at an accelerating rate, now indicating that ice mass loss is more than doubling per decade. Given this knowledge, it is surprising how many people cling to the notions that sea level rise is linear and that IPCC predictions of a 1 metre rise in average sea level by 2100 remain valid expectations. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in light of persistent failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Anyone with basic mathematics can easily calculate that if decadal doubling in the loss of land based ice occurs for the rest of this century, the effect on sea level will not be significant until about 2060. So for the next 40 years, no need to panic. We can all remain complacent – provided we don’t bother to look at what is likely to happen in the period 2060-2100. In that period, we can expect average sea level to rise, not by 3 feet but by around 4 metres – and sea level is not going to stop rising post 2100. It is simply not possible to “adapt” or take action to protect coastal cities or fertile, food producing flood plains and river deltas from rapid sea level rise likely to occur in the latter part of this century. Nor should we assume as does Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”. It won’t, certainly not unless we stop the loss of land based ice. Some “optimists” may argue that the present rate of ice loss will not show decadal doubling for the rest of this century and that present accelerating rates of loss are anomalous. In reality there is not a shred of evidence to support such an argument. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, indeed accelerating because of increasing loss of albedo and emission of CH4 and CO2 particularly in the Arctic. Global surface temperature continues to rise and is doing so at an accelerating rate. And the incidence of severe climate events are increasing.
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