It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sea Level in the Daily Press

Finally a sign of realism in the daily press. The Miami Herald has a story on sea level rise, in which they take a meter's rise as "conservative", which strikes me as a modest estimate. I note the peculiar use of the word "conservative"; a truly conservative estimate would be a worst case, no, perhaps 3 meters?

The usual noise (blaming it on Al Gore, e.g.) appears in the reader comments. Lots of idiotic blithering about your inland house gaining value because it's beachfront property. Ha. Ha.

Here's a particularly interesting one:
This is crap. "Under a conservative three foot rise" . That is not very conservative is very catastrophic, no scientific evidence that it will ever happen. Where they did get this number, why not 4 ft or 2 ft. Whoever lives on the ocean right now, I will trade my house in Hialeah, and save them from the rising tides. Of course I will start working on the ark right away. Even if it is true there is nothing we can do to stop it, until we get the dialethean crystal from the Klingons to run our cars.
I think he (interestingly, I am sure it's a male) means "dilithium"... Anyway, notice how it's all about cars (a common misconception on all sides) and especially notice how our modern way of life is considered a force completely out of our control.

Seriously, it is going to be very hard for people owning property in South Florida (or other comparable places, especially on the vast and recently built up southeastern beach and coastal plain) to face up to this threat to their wealth. Should we help them out? If so, how much?
Should it depend on whether they take mitigation seriously? It will be very psychologically difficult for them, and a bad economic move too, to acknowledge sea level rise. ("Here, buy my house, it should stay above sea level for at least half the duration of your mortgage...")

Happy Earth Day y'all...


John Mashey said...

Well, they can start acting like the Dutch, building more floating dwellings.

I assume people are familiar with the insurance situation? Insurance companies, i.e., people paid to assess and price risk, won't price it low enough anywhere near the shore any more, so the state of Florida has a backup to spread the risk across everybody in the state, I think.

Insurance companies have pulled back from the coast from Texas to Massachusetts.

John Mashey said...

On the other coast, last week I attended a nice conference for local SF Bay Area governments called
"Preparing for Sea Level rise in the Bay Area".

This had a mixture of:
- climate scientists from places like Scripps, reviewing the science,
- people from the local USGS with really accurate altitude maps of the Bay Area,
- experts on marshland and effects of dikes (very tricky)

- people from local governments, decribing efforts to lower carbon footprint, jiggle zoning and building rules, and avoid development in the wrong places. Adaptation discussions included things like (most) sewage plants (near sea-level), 2 airports (SFO and Oakland), the fact that a lot of San Jose and nearby Silicon valley is right at sea level, and issues with the water supply from the Delta, which of course is already below sea level.

- we also ran through practice planning sessions, based on imaginary towns, to consider the planning tradeoffs to be made for 2050, since that's well within infrastructure decision timeframes.

-Fortunately, the SF Bay has a lot of wetlands as buffer area, but unfortunately, even +1m is ugly ... and this place is wealthy and has a lot of people who routinely think further out than next quarter. And it's still ugly and expensive, even though we long ago almost totally banned seashore development. Of course, our dikes have to handle earthquakes.

-It also illustrated how intergovernmental this gets, as it included a handful of counties and many towns. it does no town much good to plan for a massive dike on its Bay Frontage if the town next door decides to pull back because it can't afford to build.

- People who don't think this is an issue either live a ways from the ocean or just haven't started working on the issue. If they live in the US, they might check to see just how much CA subsidizes the Federal Government and many other states and start figuring out how do with less of that.

I recommend to see what areas +1m, +2m, etc rises cause to be below sea level.

Anna said...

OK, here's an idea - make canvas grocery bags available in coastal areas, that have a localized image showing their coastline after a few meters of sea level rise.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't know about

I doubt that Miami Beach is 7 m high, which it seems to be claiming.

PaulS said...

"Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same."

That Malvina Reynolds jibe from the 60s would be speaking far too highly of the utter rubbish being snapped together nowadays out of weak cardboard, pre-warped plastic, and crumbly gypsum board. So not to worry, they'll fall apart before the mortgage is done even if the sea doesn't get to them. And should the electricity supply become dicey, the stifling Florida humidity will steam them apart even quicker.

Michael Tobis said...

I'd be surprised if this had gotten very far in the US except on the west coast and maybe Mass. Most of the northeast has a steep coastline. Florida and Louisiana are so devastated if there's rapid sea level rise that they might as well not think about it.

That leaves New York, Virginia (especially Norfolk), and Texas with significant economic activity at risk. New York is dysfunctional. I don't know about Virginia, but coastal Texas is certainly in denial.

Between CA, WA, TX, FL, VA, NY and MA, you've got a pretty good chunk of your tax base at risk.

I still think mitigation is a better idea.

By the way, do you know who represents Galveston in the Congress? It's none other than Ron Paul, not a great AGW proponent.

Chuck said...

If Florida homeowners are losing value due to sea level rise, shouldn't they be suing folks like BHP?

EliRabett said...

Essentially barrier islands with very expensive housing extend from Massachusetts to Florida. Cape Cod, Long Island, Atlantic City, Rehobeth Beach, Ocean City, etc. All of the Delmarva peninsula, and lots and lots of costal Carolina. The who damn shooting match might be 1 m over high tide on a good day.

Michael Tobis said...

I don't think Long Island is flat, nor Nantucket/Martha's Vineyard. There is Cape Cod, though. You are right I should have mentioned NJ.

The Carolinas and Georgia will lose stuff of cultural and sentimental value and a few resorts but nothing earthshattering.

There is no comparison to Florida's situation anywhere else, where the entire sandbar is essentially urbanized. (It's also pretty damned unpleasant compared to what it used to be, speaking from experience here. So I have to watch out for some comeuppance fever here.)

John Mashey said...


Yes, the USGS folks have much better data, but the guy I talked to at the conference said firetree actually wasn't bad.

The firetree data comes from NASA SRTM - maybe it gets confused by the dense buildings there, because other sources say 1m for Miami Beach.

John Mashey said...

Oops, more:
In the conference I mentioned, the topic was supposedly adaptation, but really, the local governments spent about half the time talking about what they're doing for mitigation.

This is why I think some of the adaptation-vs-mitigation stuff is a red herring:

if you are town planner with several miles of Bay:

- you work hard on mitigation, but even if you reduce your town's carbon footprint to zero ... the sea level is still coming up, so what does a responsible planner do? Run around saying "mitigation, mitigation..."

Mitigation effort is needed by a lot of people, but some people really, really have to think about adaptation if they are responsible.

Also, recall that storm surge matters, as does salt-water incursion, and it's not just the coast itself, it's the tidal marshes and the low-lying rivers.

Of course, a lot of people saying "adaptation" won't have to pay for it, they think.

Steve Bloom said...

John, is there a web site for that conference? I couldn't have gone, but am very interested in this (and rather suspicious of the associated levee plan, which I am concerned is being designed to sacrifice the wetlands by barring upland retreat).

Michael, the losses will be from storm surge, which will make it easier to socialize the costs.

Michael Tobis said...

I'm not an expert on this, but intuitively if there is major sea level rise there's no saving coastal wetlands in the Bay Area, and few opportunities elsewhere either.

I have heard that the Nature Conservancy is or is considering no longer investing in coastal wildlife refuges.

Steve Bloom said...

Will coastal wetlands be the next ethanol?

Michael, the vulnerable areas in the Bay Area include some very expensive real estate and structures, e.g. Google's nice new HQ. As a consequence that big levee plan has considerable political push behind it. OTOH the new SLR info hasn't had a chance to sink in yet. Based on past experience, though, the public policy response will probably include a major element of make-believe.

Re The drop-down box with the 7 meters is the default amount of SLR. Changing it to 1 meter gives the relevant picture, albeit one so highly pixelated that it's not useful at a neighborhood scale. I notice also that it shows the SFO runways as inundated at 1 meter of SLR, which seems doubtful even at extreme high tide. Most of Miami proper shows as still dry even with 7 meters SLR, albeit as an island.

John Mashey said...

Michael: did my long comment get lost, or is it hanging in some queue?

Steve: which "associated levee plan" are you talking about that you are suspicious of? URL?

What brand new Google HQ are you talking about? [I spent a lot of time in that complex when it was built >10 years ago by SGI.]

Just out of curiosity, do you have a PhD and 30+ years experience in hydrology and related water issues? We had several speakers like that, but if you're an even stronger expert, we need all the help we can get.

Firetree only shows what it thinks would be below sea-level, not what would inundated, and it uses NASA data from orbit. The USGS has much higher-quality local maps for the governments here.

John Mashey said...

Michael: I've been having trouble posting, and a couple got lots. I'll try again.

Michael & Steve:

Saving wetlands means preserving them as long as feasible. Among other things, please read SFBCDC's "The Bay and BCDC",, which explains why this entity exists and what its goals are,
and Climate Change Planning,
and especially the presentation used to open the conference:

The conference slides aren't up yet.

When people speak of "saving" wetlands, they are talking of doing so within their planning time horizons. With the SLR projections we know:
some will certainly last 50-100 years, especially the ones between Novato & Vallejo in the North Bay, as there is room for retreat. In some cases, steep hills prohibit retreat, in other cases, there is really important infrastructure that simply will not be easily abandoned. How good is Austin on 50-100-year plans? How many governments are any good at all at even thinking about it?

Let me try a quick quiz:

1) San Francisco Bay Area
a) Is the home of the Sierra Club and many other environmental organizations.
b) Is about average.
c) Is without environmental organizations.

2) San Francisco's national politicians (like Senators Boxer and Feinstein, and Speaker Pelosi)
a) Are very environmentally-conscious
b) Are average
c) Are like Barton or Inhofe

3) CA in general, and SF in particular
a) Are keenly aware of water issues, are home to places like the Pacific Institute (Peter Gleick), Scripps, some OK universities (like Stanford) that do serious water research and run seminars often ["troubled Waters" is Stanford's latest], and often work with PhD hydrologists with 30+ years' experience.
b) Are about average.
c) Are clueless about water

4) The SF Bay Area
a) Is above-average in educational background
b) Is average
c) Is below average

a) What is this comparison with ethanol? Do you mean that attempting to preserve wetlands is a bad idea? Some of our tax money goes to do that here, should we stop?

b) Which "big levee plan" for the Bay Area are you talking about? URL?

c) What "brand-new" Google headquarters are you talking about? It was built for SGI around 1996. 1996 is not brand-new around here.

d) works off NASA space-based data. The USGS supplies much better altitude maps for the Bay Area.

Steve: I don't know if you're water expert with a PhD and decades' work in the field, but we had several people like that speaking at the conference.


Michael Tobis said...

Sorry I can't always mod things immediately. I have rejected very few comments (about half a dozen so far) but I think a little moderation goes a long way.

Doesn't mean nothing got lost of course. The Google has been acting up a bit today, perhaps because they have not yet got around to giving me that job offer...

John Mashey said...

Moderation is good, and I normally don't worry, but I also had several posts rejected with some weird error message from blogger, so I wasn't sure what was going on.

AdamW said...

This story may be of interest:

There's been a certain amount of investigatation into SLR at East Anglia at places like Tyndall and UEA (Google throws up loads of hits and I've heard a few BBC R4 reports into it over the years). As parts of EA are below sea level, it's an interesting area to look at - even though there are obviously big differences between CA and East Anglia.

Anna H. said...

> Moderation is good

Agreed. Sure seems to make a difference here.

Just a heads-up re moderation though, at CJR's Observatory (climate meta-journo blog) for a while nobody was moderating the comments that had gotten "held for moderation" - so it was basically a permanent limbo.

Not sure if this situation has changed, but be forewarned.

Michael Tobis said...

A blog does not constitute a commitment. I think it is reasonable to reserve the right to let this drop into limbo anytime, temporarily or permanently, and let the past results stand on their own.

There's no quality of service guarantee with a blog. I haven't gotten so far behind on moderation to drop things or leave them hanging for weeks, but if I do I hope nobody feels they have a right to get mad at me.

There are multiple moderators on the globalchange google group, so at least some implicit guarantee that your comment will be reviewed eventually. (The moderation is a little bit tighter but most comments around here would pass.) If you prefer that, by all means go there.

David B. Benson said...

A bit west of here, Pudget Sound.

Steve Bloom said...

Well, John, excuse me, but of course if there are PhDs involved all is well. /sarcasm

FYI I've been an environmental activist around here (Bay Area) for over thirty years and have been active with the Sierra Club for about fifteen of those. In that time, I have seen many corrupt and misguided planning processes.

A quick response on the substance:

My particular cynicism on the wetlands restoration vs. SLR business has to do with the Cargill deal (which IMHO was rather rotten since it involved the purchase of extensive areas that are unlikely to survive as wetlands even under a constrained SLR scenario), a review of the environmental docs for the restoration project (start here with the SLR discussion) and an awareness that vast amounts of money are involved.

Of course there are some straight shooters involved in all of this, Peter Gleick in particular but also the Estuary Institute folks, but nonetheless I am extremely concerned that economic interests focused on the short term may result in an outcome that is nonsensical in light of likely SLR. IMHO a 50-year planning horizon is virtually designed to do that. (My ethanol comment had to do with this short-term vs. long-term disconnect.)

The environmental review process for the levee project itself hasn't actually happened yet, but a major concern is that the restoration project locks it in. As you can see from the linked page, the restoration project's SLR assumption is pretty much history. This is a concrete example of the damage done by the reticence of glaciologists, BTW.

In addition to the convenient 50-year planning horizon, the other big flaw is the assumption that natural processes will build up the South Bay wetlands even though upland retreat is no longer possible. Having looked carefully, I couldn't see any science demonstrating this, so I asked one of the Estuary Institute folks about it. His anwer was basically that it's not proven, and that even if it's real the result may be a very narrow band of wetlands with much-reduced ecological value. In theory the levee environmental review process (to be conducted by the Army Corps) will have to adress this issue, but I am not hopeful.

I don't have a link handy for this, but IIRC the majority of the billion-dollar price tag for this project is for the levees rather than the wetlands. So the upshot seems to be that this is a levee project with a wetlands restoration cover story. It's no coincidence that the issue of whether the cost of protecting all of that very expensive Silicon Valley real estate should be completely socialized seems to have never been discussed.

John Mashey said...

1) I wouldn't doubt that their are corrupt practices.

2) The point of the PhD comments was not that I worship PhDs (I know too many), but that they got folks with both academic and practical experience, who were quite straightforward in telling people there wouldn't be any upland retreat in lots of places.

3) My impression of the attendees was people trying very hard to understand the science and try to do "the right things" within the restrictions they have. People were very clear that we need to think longer than 50 years, but it isn't easy.

4) So, attend the next one and voice your opinions ...