2014-12-18 / News

Oceanographer warns of rising sea levels

By Ken Shane

“I want to help you see the future,” oceanographer John Englander said last week at Salve Regina University. He was the keynote speaker during a twoday symposium on how waterfront businesses can “stay afloat” despite rising seas and extreme storms.

Englander is the author of “High Tide on Main Street,” a 2013 book that looks at sea level rise and the resulting coastal crisis. He says rising seas will affect different places in different ways, which means various strategies will be required. Englander believes the sea will continue to rise even if CO2 emissions ended today. Scientists say a safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million, which means there are 350 CO2 molecules for every million molecules in the atmosphere. That level has recently increased to more than 400 parts per million, he said.

According to Englander, the temperature of the world’s oceans has already risen 1.5 degrees. As a result, ice sheets and glaciers are changing. He believes the inevitable sea level rise could become catastrophic. There is a bright side, however. Because experts don’t know how long it will take for the seas to become unmanageable, Englander says it presents humanity with an opportunity to cope with the problem.

Ice ages are cyclical, he said, and they take place every 100,000 years. The last one took place on Earth about 20,000 years ago. When the ice melted 5,000 years ago, the sea level rose by 390 feet. The Earth should be in a cooling cycle now, Englander said, but the current situation indicates that things are going contrary to natural cycles. He says it’s clear that there will never be another ice age on the planet. The arctic, which has been frozen for 3 million years, will be ice free in our lifetime, Englander said.

“Sea level rise isn’t going to stop even if we stop greenhouse gases today,” he said. “Sea level rise is a form of flooding, and one that is impossible to see compared to other floods.”

Scientistspredicta3to5foot rise in sea level before the end of the century, and while experts don’t know exactly when it will reach those levels, it could be sooner rather than later, according to Englander. People living today will be the first generation to see the shoreline visibly change. Worse yet, scientific projections tend to be on the conservative side, he said.

The dire forecast presents a big challenge to the business community, Englander said. In the short term, he recommended that business owners and communities consider renovations, and a 25-year plan that is respectful of the projections. He urged leaders to think long term. Today, he said, humans benefit from things that were done 100 years ago.

While some people think humanity can escape the problem by simply moving inland, Englander stressed that no one can escape the problem because the planet relies on its shorelines.

“No one on the planet today can escape the coastal economy,” Englander said.

Rhode Island is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise because of the expansiveness of Narragansett Bay, he said. Englander urged the scientific community to work together with both the public and private sectors. In Rhode Island, Englander said he’s already noticed cooperation taking place.

He suggested elevating buildings, erected higher seawalls, and migrating from marshland. He summed up the concepts in three words: elevate, retreat and barricade. Englander envisions a time when Narragansett Bay will have barricades, including one off Jamestown.

The optimistic view is that sea level rise is a slow problem, providing more time to plan for the future. The planning will require focus and should not be politically driven, he said. Instead of “arguing whether we’re impacting climate,” officials should look for architectural solutions and creative engineering.

“100 years from now, the communities that are doing well will be the ones who think big,” Englander said.

The rise in sea level is caused by glaciers and ice sheets melting on land, he said, and not the polar ice caps melting. If all of the glaciers and ice sheets on Earth melted, including Greenland and Antarctica, the seas would rise a total of 212 feet. Even at the current projections, Englander said that there are some places that are beyond saving. He mentioned Miami several times in his talk.

According to Englander, humans are going to have to find a way to take the 7 billion people on Earth – a number that is projected to grow to 10 billion – and adjust to the moving coastlines.

Return to top