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The Ultimate Slow Emergency: Sea Level Rise

April 3, 2013 12:56 p.m.


John Englander is an oceanographer, a former CEO of both the Costeau Society and the International Seakeepers Society. He is author of the book High Tide on Main Street.

Related Story: The Ultimate Slow Emergency: Sea Level Rise


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The one thing that may finally get people to stop debating about climate change and take action is the reality of rising sea levels. That's the premise of the book high tide on main street, written by my guest, John Englander. As he outlines in his book, it's more than just rising sealevels, it's when the water can do when whipped up by the fury of a storm or powerful waves. Some his predictions were eerily realized when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast. Author John Englander is an oceanographer, a former CEO of the Cousteau society and the seakeepers society. Welcome to the program.

ENGLANDER: Thank you. Nice to be with you want

CAVANAUGH: To read what you wrote about what could happen in New York City is eerie considering you published your book a week before Hurricane Sandy. Can you give us an idea of the kind of storm effects you predicted?

ENGLANDER: Well, I was describing scenarios of what could happen, and explain that in certain places there are geologic and toppo graphic features that amplify the effects, and New York was just one example. The fact that it happened a week later exactly was as stunning to me as anybody, I think.

CAVANAUGH: What exactly if you could tell us -- how did rising sea levels affect what we saw what happened on the east coast with Hurricane Sandy?

ENGLANDER: Sure. The illustration I was giving, and it's important to start to tease this apart and separate coastal destruction from different factors. Sea level has risen about seven or 8 inches in the world. Less in parts of California and on the east coast. But it's an average of 7 or 8 inches. And that's going to continue to rise probably several feet. There's a debate as to how bad it will get. It depends on what we do with greenhouse gases this century with population levels etc. But the first thing is the sea level. On top of that, we get a storm surge. And that's primarily what sandy was. But the storm surge in this case happened at high tide, and not only a regular high tide, but a winter high tide, or an extreme tide. And in California, you tend to call them king tides when we have the seasonal high tides. So a storm came at a king tide, and in the high tide during the king tide cycle, so it hit at the worst possible time. So we have sea level, a storm surge, it came on top of a high tide, and those things all add up and bring the sea level higher. And on top of that, the fourth thing that Sandy illustrated is that certain places amplify these effects, and New York just happened to be one of them. There were many other places from providence Rhode Island, to Sacramento, and parts of the gulf coast where there's a funneling effect. And the effect in New York is a double one that if eye storm were to hit Atlantic city, that the right flank which is stronger in a hurricane would hit New York, as happened, of course. And besides the funneling effect that Long Island kind of makes a broad funnel shape with the New Jersey shortstop and driving the maximum amount of water into New York harbor, on top of what we can see just looking at any map, there's an underwater plate, the Atlantic continental shelf is very broad and shallow, totally different than what you have off of California there. And with a storm coming from the southeast to the Northwest, which was the study that I cited, the water would pile up even further because the water coming onto that shore and into that narrowing funnel, you would just get this huge effect. It's not the only place this happens, but it was the place I happened to choose as an illustration.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And you have a chapter in your book called what defense does a couple of inches make, I'm paraphrasing. And what you're describing here is that when people hear that the water has -- the sea level has risen maybe just a few inches, it's a multiplying effect when it comes to factors like this that can increase the potential damage or effect of that rising sea level.

ENGLANDER: That's exactly right. A few inches matter. And worse, they're additive, and they get multiplied by these factors. You may not think that three or 4 inches matters but as a friend of mine likes to point out, in a basketball court, we know the height of the players and the back basket, and you'd only have to rise the floor by a couple of inches to dramatically change the point scorers. And it's a good metaphor. What happens is as we raise the base, everything else has greater impact. And what people don't think about yet is that sea level is going to rise inexorably, decade by decade, this century, the next century, and the next century. And it's already a given because of the amount of excess heat that is stored in the ocean that is now melting the ice sheets in greenland and western Antarctica. Those levels are huge. And back in history, sea level does go up and down 3 or 400 feet. So we've entered a new era that's different from the sea level change of the past, we're actually going in the opposite direction than we should be. But regardless, changes in sea level happen over thousands of years. There are natural cycles. And now in effect, we've changed the cycle. These inches of seawater are going to add up decade by decade by decade far into the next century. So it's really a millennial shift, and we haven't stepped back to look at this big picture.

CAVANAUGH: Let me, if I may, bring that to this side of the country, San Diego. It's on your list of vulnerable cities. But beyond being at the coast, what is it that makes our city particularly vulnerable here in San Diego?

ENGLANDER: Well, I've never lived there, but my dad lives up in Escondido, and I've done some work with Scripps in La Jolla. And what makes San Diego one of the good exemplar cities of why we're vulnerable is which you look down in the harbor area from the airport to the harbor island and the Navy case bases, it's pretty low-lying land. Now the nice thing is in San Diego that the relief steps up pretty quickly. And in terms of its long-term survivability, the region is going to be fine, different from Miami and south Florida where I live. But there's a lot of low-lying land there that's just several feet above sea level. And you've also seen, I think it's imperial beach and some areas like that, where just the erosion along the coastline has either jeopardized or in fact destroyed some homes already.


ENGLANDER: So we again see the illustration that waves during a storm, when it hits at a high tide do their damage. And once we plot out that sea level is now rising for the first time in about 6,000 years and will continue to do so on a scale that we can't even imagine over the coming several centuries, we can see that this is a new year era. And that's the point. We tend to judge the future by what happened in the past. In the case of sea level, we just have to look farther back to see reality. We tend to look back a couple years, but with sea level, that means level.

CAVANAUGH: We're in the process of San Diego in planning an expansion of our Convention Center which is located right on the bay. Now, sea level rise projections don't look good for this expansion. They show much of it underwater by 2050. And yet, so far officials seem to be moving forward with the plan. I'm wondering, is this -- this is a problem that we have to deal with here in San Diego, and it'll be resolved one way or another. But on a larger scale, is this a typical reaction? Are cities being slow to realize, coastal cities, that this is a reality that they're going to have to deal with?

ENGLANDER: It varies. Two different examples, in Boston a few years ago, they had to build a new sewage plant on one of the islands off of Boston harbor. And just before they started construction, they started paying attention to sea level rise, and they raised the design elevation by 3 feet to accommodate what they thought was the worst case of sea level rise in 50 years. You would say they did take account of it. Miami is just being sued by a party of groups that are saying that their $1.5 billion plant to revamp the sewage and waste water treatment system, a plant that they're planning on Virginia key, I can't remember, that they haven't accounted for sea level rise. So I think it's safe to say that we're at a turning point here. And Sandy has helped to bring attention to this vulnerability. We've all read that in New Jersey and New York, they're asking the question, could this happen again? Will it be worse in the future? Should we rebuild where things were or not? So San Diego's question in the concern about -- I don't know what your timescale is for the Convention Center in terms of the horizon for its life, but whether it's 30 years or 50 years, and often the structures are used long beyond their intended life, I think it's a fair question to ask. And the thing that I would point out about sea level is that the history of the last 20 years shows that actual sea level rise is exceeding all the projections. In other words, the projections for sea level rise that have been done by the leading groups in the world and including people that are at Scripps but the IPcc and others have projected a fairly modest amount of sea level rise. Just looking back 20 years, we are at the top range or have slightly exceeded the maximum projection for 20 years. So sea level is going faster. And not only is the trend there in history of 20 years, but there are some uncertainties in the future that really could accelerate sea level rise dramatically in the next three or four decades. One is the escape of methane. It's far more powerful. Hundreds of times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. So that would accelerate things. And there's a place in Antarctica that is showing signs of softening. If those glaciers are released into the sea this century, they will dramatically increase sea level rise. They're not yet something we can say for certain, but they're becoming an increasing possibility. So I think we should be conservative. I would think that you should raise that building, whatever it is, it's cheaper to do it now.

CAVANAUGH: There are some efforts as you mentioned being made by coastal cities in San Diego County to take some action. But I was interested in reading in your book that you're calling efforts to build beaches or seawalls Band-Aid solutions. So are there any real solutions?

ENGLANDER: Well, we don't know for sure how fast sea level will rise for the reasons I just cited. But whether it's 3 feet or 6 feet this century, and it will increase into the next century, one of the problems about just talking about the end of the century is we imply that's the worst it'll be. The truth is the beginning of the next century will be worse than this century because it's an accelerating curve. So once you look forward and think not only our lifetimes but our kids' and grand kids, where do our communities get the best return on investment? I say yes, plan for the future. And if you plan for sea level, which will eventually be 5 or 10 feet higher, even if you take babysteps now, it's like when you're building a building you can build it one floor at a time if you build the foundation correctly. If you plan for a ten-story building, you can build it one floor at a time. You can't build a one-story building and keep adding to it or it'll collapse. Designing for increasing sea level and the uncertainty demands that we plan knowing where sea level is headed. And when you step back and look at the history of sea level moving up and down hundreds of feet, and it will rise tens of feet, we just can't be sure how quickly, then we should design things differently. And I think it's an exciting opportunity. While there's of course a downside to this, and you can see that the glass is half empty, it's also half full.

CAVANAUGH: I am absolutely out of time. I am so sorry. But for people who want to learn more, the book is called high tide on main street, rising sea level, and the coming coastal crisis. Thank you very much.

ENGLANDER: Thank you.