Estimates of Sea Level Rise by 2100 Have Tripled in the Past Few Years
Environmental activist Peter Sinclair examines the growing threat of sea level rise
Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change opined that if greenhouse gas emissions continued on current trends, the likely maximum of sea level rise by 2100 was about one meter. In May 2016, only three years later, a study in the prestigious scientific journal Nature concluded that if high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continued, oceans could rise by close to two meters by the end of the century. In less than three years, scientists essentially doubled the IPC’s 2013 estimate of maximum sea level rise by 2100.
The IPCC estimate relied on the notion that expanding ocean waters and the melting of relatively small glaciers would fuel the majority of sea level rise, rather than the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. It turns out, however, that scientists were underestimating the rate at which the giant ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland were melting. About one month ago, scientists increased their estimates of sea level rise even further. New research, including from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, increased the plausible sea level rise maximum to as much as 2.7 meters. Thus, in the space of a mere five years, the scientific community nearly tripled its estimate of maximum sea level rise under a business-as-usual scenario.
These three estimates in maximum plausible sea level rise received extensive media coverage, but the far more alarming scientific estimate has received little, if any, attention as far as we can tell at The Real News. Earlier this year, NASA scientist Eric Rignot gave a presentation in which he predicted that if we experience global warming in the range of 1.5 degrees Celsius to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, we are committing the planet to sea level rise of six to nine meters. Moreover, according to Dr. Rignot, sea level rise of that magnitude may occur within the next 100 to 200 years. Let’s listen to some of what Dr. Rignot had to say.
Eric Rignot: By 2100, more than one meter, very likely. This is not a futuristic situation. It’s on pace now. The irony of this is when we started talking about this 10 years ago, everybody was raising eyebrows, one meter sea level rise. You’re crazy, right? Now it’s common knowledge. I watch these interviews. Everybody says, “Yeah, one meter sea level rise per century.” Sometimes I even want to say, “Which publication are you referring to?” Twitter. Twitter. Sea level rise commitments, to me that was probably one of the biggest news in the last decade. We see a lot of happening in the ice sheets, but the [inaudible 00:03:00] coming very strong and clearly and saying, “If you warm the climate this much, it’s six to nine meters.”
When we talk about projecting the impact of ice sheets on sea level, we have [inaudible 00:03:13] by factor 10, all right? Here they say six to nine meters. Pretty awesome. Obviously the Paris Accord agree, right? They came back with 1.5 degrees instead of two degrees. That’s the right move, except as scientists, we all know we’re going to go beyond the 1.5 degree. We’re probably already there, and it’s going to be difficult to limit ourselves below two degrees. We know from the public record, that’s not going to protect us from sea level. We are committing ourselves to a six to nine meter sea level rise if we stay in that climate. We don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we are committing the system to do this.
Dimitri Lascaris: Now here to discuss this with us is Peter Sinclair. Peter is an environmental activist and videographer whose focus is on climate change. He is a YouTube blogger, explorer, and founder of the ClimateCrocks.com website and media director of the Dark Snow Project. Peter joins us today from Midland, Michigan. Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.
Peter Sinclair: Great to be here.
Dimitri Lascaris: Peter, before we delve into the significance of all of this, let’s address some of the underlying scientific facts. Dr. Rignot’s estimate of six to nine meters is based on a global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius to two degrees Celsius. We heard Dr. Rignot say in that clip that it’s now inevitable that we will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, and it will be difficult to remain beneath two degrees Celsius of warming. If the signatories to the Paris Climate Accord meet their emission reduction targets, and that’s a very big if especially after President Trump declared his intention to take the U.S., a major emitter, out of the Paris Climate Accord, what level of warming do scientists say that we are likely to see?
Peter Sinclair: Well, I think Dr. Rignot is being realistic and pretty consistent with other scientists when he says that two degrees, that’s a heavy lift. It is a good aspirational goal. It’s not completely out of the question. It’s technologically feasible. The biggest questions are political at this point. There are a number of scientists, very knowledgeable scientists, that will tell you it’s very likely we’re going to blow right past two degrees at this point. Everything that we can do to either remain under or remain as close to two degrees is going to be very much worthwhile, because the impacts if we get further down that road are extreme and unattractive.
Dimitri Lascaris: Let’s talk about those impacts on the assumption that we remain below two degrees Celsius. We’re somewhere in the range of 1.5 to two degrees Celsius, and we see sea level rise within 100 to 200 years of six to nine meters as Dr. Rignot predicts. What would happen to the world’s major coastal cities in that scenario, and would the world be capable of absorbing the climate refugees that sea level of that magnitude would likely generate?
Peter Sinclair: Well, I think it’s worthwhile to just look at the issues that we’re already having with sea level rise. I was in Miami in the fall for the king tide, the highest tide of the year, and shooting video of water up in the streets, even in the most high-value real estate districts of Miami Beach, and as well in very low income areas in the northern part of Miami. The impacts are already extremely serious to the point where Miami Beach is spending $400 million on a pumping system that they hope will be some kind of a Band-Aid on this ocean rise, at least for the next 20 or 30 years.
But there are towns, cities, and villages all up and down our coastline and the coastlines of the world that don’t have $400 million. They are all going to be subject to devastating impacts. Many of them are already feeling very severe and costly impacts on coastal infrastructure. Some areas are going to be hit harder than others. Some areas, for instance like where you are, Baltimore, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware area, that coastline is actually sinking even while sea level is rising. You got a kind of a double hit there. Those impacts are going to be severe even sooner than many other parts of the world. Some places-
Dimitri Lascaris: Based on [crosstalk 00:08:20].
Peter Sinclair: Go ahead.
Dimitri Lascaris: I understand the engineers refer to that concept as subsidence, and in major cities, you’re seeing the sinking. This is essentially due to a combination of factors as I understand it, which is that groundwater is being pumped out, and in addition, the weight of the infrastructure is also contributing to subsidence. Is that fair? Is that something that’s being experienced, for example, in cities like Baltimore in the United States?
Peter Sinclair: In your area, there’s also another factor which is that the land is still readjusting from the last Ice Age and the retreat of the glaciers, which means some places are rising. Your place happens to be sinking as part of that response. That’s another factor.
Dimitri Lascaris: Right. Other than Baltimore, what other cities in the United States, in the developed … We often hear about the developing world. The developed world seems … People seem to think that there’s less exposure to major sea level rise because of perhaps the ability to adapt and mitigate, but what other cities in the developed world are particularly vulnerable, besides, for example, Baltimore and the urban areas around Baltimore?
Peter Sinclair: Well, Miami as we know it is not going to survive this century. We can imagine maybe some kind of architectural science fiction scenario where they manage to turn it into some kind of a Venice situation, but South Florida as we know it is going to disappear with a meter or two of sea level rise. We really won’t have to wait for that entire scenario to play out, because probably we’ll see major impact the next time there’s a Category 4 or 5 hurricane that targets the South Florida-Miami area. We will see impacts that will probably be very sobering to insurance companies, to the residents, to lawmakers and policymakers, and taxpayers because it’s going to cost us a lot of money.
Dimitri Lascaris: Now one of the more common attacks we hear on climate scientists from the skeptics is that they allegedly exaggerate systematically the dangers of climate change. For example, in September of last year, writing in Forbes Magazine, Robert Bradley authored an article entitled Climate Exaggeration is Backfiring. In that article, he wrote, “Falsified and sure to be falsified exaggerations from a parade of PhD scientists are ruining the reputation of science itself. Physical science has turned into profit-maximizing political science.” What do you say to the skeptics who claim that leading climate scientists routinely overstate the rapidity and severity of climate change?
Peter Sinclair: Well, if anything, it’s the opposite. I mean, certainly you can find sensationalized media reports that are probably over the top. I don’t think it’s very hard to track those down. As far as actual peer-reviewed science, if anything they’ve been too conservative. I’ll give you a couple of examples. In the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, if you read the summary for policymakers about Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the general consensus then, and this was 16 years ago, was that we probably wouldn’t see very much movement in Antarctica in this century at all, and that Greenland was considered kind of a toss-up whether we would see very much change there. In the decade that followed, we started getting really much better satellite read-out of mass loss on those ice sheets. It’s now generally agreed that they are both losing mass. In particular, Antarctica, much to everybody’s surprise, is moving a lot faster than anyone would have imagined even five years ago.
Another example would be sea ice. This is the ice, not the land ice, but the ice that’s floating on the ocean in the Arctic around the North Pole, is disappearing at a much faster pace than that same IPCC report in 2001 was estimating, where they thought it was … More likely than not, it was thought that we would retain most of the sea ice for the major portion of this century, but now it looks like we’re probably going to see ice-free conditions in the summer, I think most people, conservative people, are probably saying within 20 years.
Dimitri Lascaris: At the other end of the debate in those who take the consensus, the scientific consensus, on climate change seriously and who note that there have been a number of instances in which the scientific community has in fact underestimated the rapidity or the severity of climate change, they explain that this is a result, a natural consequence, of the scientific method, which is inherently conservative and cautious. Myself, I often had a little bit of that skepticism of that explanation, but ultimately climate scientists are human beings. They’re political animals. They also have funding needs from government sources, perhaps from the private sector. What do you think accounts for the fact that, on numerous occasions, the scientific community has in fact underestimated to a significant degree the rapidity and the severity of climate change? Is it simply something having to do with the inherently conservative nature of the scientific method, or is there something else going on here, something of a political nature?
Peter Sinclair: Well, the last thing any scientists wants to do is be regarded as someone who is alarmist or who goes beyond what their data is telling them. It’s much more comfortable for them to low-ball, but in all fairness, we did not understand a lot of things about the physics of ice dynamics even 15 years ago, things that we understand much better now. There are a number of what scientists call positive feedbacks in ice sheets, and let me just explain that. Positive feedback is something that’s good when you get it from your boss. It is not good when you get it from an ice sheet. Just for example, we are seeing … As more and more surface water is flowing on the ice sheet in Greenland, it flows down to the bottom and it lubricates the ice and causes it to flow faster.
We also see cracks opening up around the edges of the ice as there is more and more melt area. In the summer, water is filling these cracks, and the water forces the cracks to become larger and deeper, because water is heavier than ice and exerts what scientists call a hydrofracking force on the ice. That’s just two examples of positive feedbacks that were underappreciated 10 or 15 years ago, but that are really causing a major speed-up in the ice sheet movement. I could probably go through half a dozen more feedbacks like that, and we keep discovering them. Antarctica, because it’s geographically somewhat different than Greenland, has its own set of feedbacks as well.
Dimitri Lascaris: Right. Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris talking to Peter Sinclair, media director of the Dark Snow Project. Thank you very much for joining us today, Peter. We’ll certainly be following the scientific developments in the field of sea level rise very closely at The Real News.
Peter Sinclair: You bet. Thanks.
Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.