NOAA Sea Level Rise Report: Now It’s Personal

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We can’t stop burning fossil fuels, some people say, because the transition to a low or zero carbon economy will cost too much money and disrupt millions of lives. There is no question the cost of doing something will be high, but the cost of doing nothing will be much, much higher. The latest report from the National Ocean Service about sea level rise makes that abundantly clear. The report is the result of input from NOAA, NASA, EPA, USGS,  Homeland Security, FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Defense.

It does not do justice to this report to cherrypick bits and pieces to share with our readers. Instead, the major focus points are presented here in their entirety. The technical analysis for the report can be found online at this link.

The Next 30 Years

Sea level along the US coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches (0.25 – 0.30 meters) in the next 30 years (2020 – 2050), which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years (1920 – 2020). Sea level rise will vary regionally along US coasts because of changes in both land and ocean height.

Breaking It Down

Rise in the next three decades is anticipated to be, on average: 10 – 14 inches (0.25 – 0.35 meters) for the East coast; 14 – 18 inches (0.35 – 0.45 meters) for the Gulf coast; 4 – 8 inches (0.1 – 0.2 meters) for the West coast; 8 – 10 inches (0.2 – 0.25 meters) for the Caribbean; 6 – 8 inches (0.15 – 0.2 meters) for the Hawaiian Islands; and 8 – 10 inches (0.2 – 0.25 meters) for northern Alaska.

This report provides greater confidence in estimates of sea level rise out to 2050 than the previous 2017 report because of advances in sea level science, as captured in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, and the use of multiple lines of evidence: both the trends in the amount of relative sea level rise already observed and the models of future sea level rise closely match one another in the next 30 years.

More Damaging Flooding

Sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to increase and reach further inland. By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.

Breaking it Down

With this shift, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding will occur more frequently in 2050 (4 events/year) than “minor” (mostly disruptive, nuisance, or high tide) flooding occurs today (3 events/year). “Major” (often destructive) flooding is expected to occur five times as often in 2050 (0.2 events/year) as it does today (0.04 events/year). These averages will be exceeded in some locations across the U.S. because of regional and year-to-year variability.

Coastal flooding can be exacerbated by many factors that are not included in these estimates, such as rainfall, river discharge, wave impacts like coastal erosion, and existing infrastructure. Without additional risk reduction measures, US coastal infrastructure, communities, and ecosystems will face increased impacts.

Emissions Matter

Current and future emissions matter. About 2 feet (0.6 meters) of sea level rise along the US coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date. Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5 – 5 feet (0.5 – 1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5 – 7 feet (1.1 – 2.1 meters) by the end of this century.

Breaking it Down

Current and future emissions will determine the amount of additional rise in the future: the greater the emissions, the greater the warming, and the greater the likelihood of higher sea levels. Above 5.5°F (3°C) of global warming, much greater sea level rise becomes possible for the US and globally because of the potential for rapid melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

The amount of additional warming required to trigger this is unknown because ice sheet instability is difficult to model and there is great variability in current modeling approaches. Efforts are underway to improve our understanding of ice sheet dynamics in order to more precisely project future sea level rise in response to continued emissions and warming.

Continual Tracking

Continuously tracking how and why sea level is changing is an important part of informing plans for adaptation. Our ability to monitor and understand the individual factors that contribute to sea level rise allows us to track sea level changes in a way that has never before been possible (e.g., using satellites to track global ocean levels and ice sheet thickness). Ongoing and expanded monitoring will be critical as sea levels continue to rise.

Breaking it Down

US federal agencies performing continuous monitoring and assessments of key sea level rise source contributions affecting US coastlines — such as ocean heat content, ice mass loss from Greenland and Antarctica, vertical land motion, and changes in the Gulf Stream — can provide early indications of change in the trajectory of sea level rise, which can inform shifts in adaptation planning.

Sea Level Rise Is Happening

The Guardian report on this latest study quotes NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who says, “Sea levels are continuing to rise at an alarming rate, endangering communities around the world. Science is indisputable and urgent action is required to mitigate a climate crisis that is well under way.” NOAA administrator Rick Spinrad, says the report should act as a “wake-up call” to the perils of the climate crisis.

The seawater lapping at the edges of the contiguous US has already risen by about a foot since 1920, a faster increase than the 6-8in (15-20cm) experienced, on average, around the world over the same period. This sea level rise is on track to double within just 30 years around the US, although the rates of change will vary significantly across different regions. While the US west coast is expected to get 4-8in of extra sea level by 2050, the east coast will get up to 14in of raised seas and the communities ringing the Gulf of Mexico will be hit by a severe increase of up to 18in.

The uneven rate of sea level rise will influence flood risk — the western part of the Gulf coast will see 10 times as many moderate flooding events a year compared with now, for example, while the risk of such flooding will edge up only slightly in Alaska and Hawaii.

The Takeaway

It is popular today to pooh-pooh anything government scientists have to say. The words “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” got guffaws from millions of Americans and helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House, where the first thing he did was rip the solar water heating system installed by Jimmy Carter off the roof.

“Government = Bad” is the unending mantra of every politician who wants to ride triumphantly into office on the wave of anti-government sentiment that pervades American society today. The most recent former president went so far as to issue an executive order prohibiting the US government from including provisions that would address the need for protection against flooding or hurricanes in any federal projects. And yet his many supporters applaud such stunning stupidity.

Alleged senator Joe Manchin has put his own financial interests ahead of the needs of the country to torpedo Democratic initiatives that would more forcefully address the coming climate change crisis. “It’s too expensive!” he wails. People in power will do anything to stay in power, even if it means harming those who voted for them.

Last month, consulting group McKinsey issued a report that details the cost of transitioning to a low or zero carbon world. It’s steep, no question about it — roughly $9.2 trillion a year. But far less than the cost of just sailing merrily along on a “business as usual” path that will lead to the dislocation of tens of millions of people from flooding, drought, and extreme temperatures.

Close your eyes and imagine the chaos that will ensue as all those people pick up stakes and seek to move to places that are more congenial to human habitation. Lets call that scenario “Wars And Walls.” Is that really to be the fate of humanity? Unless we stop lying to ourselves, admit that we must stop burning fossil fuels, and start making that transition happen, that is where we are headed.

It’s such a shame. All this pigheadness about “the other” — people with different skin color or facial features, people who speak strange languages or wear funny clothes, people who don’t practice missionary sex the way God intended. All of that hatred will seal our doom. As Benjamin Franklin once told us, “We must hang together or surely we will hang separately.”

There is a common threat to human existence called climate change and it is caused by burning coal, oil, and methane. If we stop doing that, we have a chance of survival. If we don’t, the risk of extinction is great. Which is the better choice?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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