16. Sea Level Rise
A report in 2014 by the UN Environment Program indicated that “Small Island Developing States” (SDI States) are at immediate risk of sea level rise. The island of Kosrae (5.3, 163 deg.) and other tropical Western Pacific small islands have been experiencing a sea level rise of about 12 mm per year: “about four times the global average.” In 2005 the UN declared that the 100 inhabitants of Tegua (-13.25, 166.62 deg.) to be the world’s first climate change refugees. With their island slowly sinking and the ocean rising they were forced to flee to another island
On a larger scale, the entire 113,000 population of Kiribati (1.9, -157.4), to the north west of the Tuamotos, will soon have to be evacuated: “This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” Anote Tong (president of Kiribati) said. “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.” Mr. Tong is in negotiation with the Fijian military to buy 5,000 acres on the island of Vanua Levu.(-16.7, 179 deg.) Some of Kiribati’s 32 island atolls are already disappearing, as are islands throughout the south Pacific. (The Telegraph, March 7, 2012) These island people are the first to experience the effects of sea level rise.
Probably the first extinction caused by sea level rise is the Bramble Cay melomys, which is a small rodent that lived on a small island between Australia and Papua New Guinea. It was last seen in 2009 and was likely driven to extinction by rising seas. There will be many other coastal animals that will suffer the same fate in the future. It is humans who may suffer the most, especially in the large coastal cities.
In February, 2006, my wife, Theresa, and I hooked up with Ken Fink in southern Florida. I wanted to test a new sail rig system and thought that the prevailing trade winds would push us down the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West. This time I was right.
We started down the windy gulf side of the keys on water too shallow for motor boats. We had the place to ourselves. With the Florida Reef just offshore providing protection, the ocean swell was minimal and the seas were easy. The upper keys are too developed for camping but there were lots of small, mom-and-pop motels along the way. I had entered their locations and phone numbers on my GPS. When it was time to go in for the night we just called the nearest one on my cell phone.
Once we had passed the Seven Mile Bridge we put away the sails and paddled north through the lower keys. We passed from sandy shore barrier islands facing the Gulf of Mexico to sheltered channels amongst coral islands thick with mangroves and beautiful frigate birds, pelicans and warblers.
On the upper keys two things were noticeable right away. First, there was far more traffic on the Overseas Highway connecting the keys than we anticipated, considering that once you drove to Key West you had to turn around and come back. Sometimes it was difficult just to cross the highway, which made walking to restaurants at night a bit strange.
The other thing was also a surprise. In many areas there were all sorts of furniture pieces, stoves, fridges and whatever floating around the keys, stranded onshore, and beside the highway. Just four months before, Hurricane Wilma, a category 3 storm, had hit the keys with a vengeance. A mandatory evacuation of all residents had been ordered. It was obvious that the storm had swept right over the low-lying keys. With rising sea levels and increasingly intense storms, how long will the Florida Keys remain habitable? More recently, on September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma, a category 4 storm when it came ashore, devastated the entire chain of keys.
2007 estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that global sea level will increase 8 to 16 inches above 1990 levels by 2090. The National Academy of Sciences predictions from 2009 suggest that by 2100 sea level could increase by anywhere from 16 inches to 56 inches, depending how the Earth responds to changing climate. Both of these estimates are probably way off because neither accurately studied the effects of ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica.
NASA has been measuring Greenland ice cap for 11 years using satellite and laser altimetry data. The IPCC computer simulation models underestimate the rate of melt. Their model measures just 4 glaciers in Greenland, but the actual situation is more complicated. There are “superglacial lakes” — lakes that have been migrating inland, and the dark water is accelerating the melting. The water can also act as a lubricant, causing the ice to slide into the ocean. The UN study did not allow for this or for the different rates of glacier melting. If the whole ice cap melts, the sea level will rise over 20 ft. (7.2 meters). The team estimates a doubling of the 8.7 inches that IPCC estimated for Greenland contributing to global sea level rise this century. Whole countries, such as Bangladesh, and cities, such as Miami and Shanghai, will be inundated. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon flew to Greenland and declared that this threat is the greatest that faces mankind. In the last ten years the equivalent of 10 billion tons of ice have melted. A study published in the journal Nature, October 18, 2023, stated that the threshold for "overshooting the critical threshold for the Greenland ice sheet to be between 1.7C and 2.3C." 1.5C was already exceeded for some months in 2023. We are very close to the threshold. A Norwegian study of relic features on the seabed indicates that ice retreat can happen in rapid spurts. Historical data indicates retreats of up to 600 meters a day during short bursts, which is up to 20 times faster than previously recorded by satellite.
A similar situation is playing out in Antarctica.
On May 12, 2014 The Guardian reported:
“The collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet has already started. It will be complete within 200 to 500 years. It would cause a sea-level rise of up to 4 metres (13 ft.) Most of the sea level rise we’ve seen so far is from thermal expansion [ocean warming and therefore expanding] and alpine glaciers melting.
“The collapse of the Western Antarctica ice sheet is already under way and is unstoppable, two separate teams (from NASA and Univ. of Washington) of scientists said on Monday.”
“The sea level rise caused by west Antarctica collapsing will change the coastline of the whole world. The rise won’t be even around the world — the coast of north-eastern US and along the south of China will see particularly high increases.”
“The study honed in on the Thwaites glacier — a broad glacier that is part of the Amundsen Sea. Scientists have known for years that the Thwaites glacier is the soft underbelly of the Antarctic ice sheet, and first found that it was unstable decades ago.”
A more recent study presented by Richard B. Alley in the February 2019 issue of Scientific American enlarged on the Thwaites glacier. This and the adjoining Pine Island glacier are massive ice sheets, extending one mile above sea level and jammed 1 1/2 miles deep onto the Bentley Subglacial Trench said to be “Earth’s deepest place not under an ocean”.
Floating ice shelves that occur at the foot of glaciers in protected bays slow down the flow of ice as it is propelled into the ocean. Warm air can cause lakes to form on these shelves. These lakes can cause the shelves to break up rapidly. When these shelves break up, the flow of the glaciers behind them can speed up.
A report in March, 2023, by Dr. Will Hobs, at the University of Tasmania, was even more dire. In four decades of satellite observations, there has never been less sea ice. He said: "we are seeing less sea ice everywhere. It's a circumpolar event." (Guardian, March 4, 2023)
In West Greenland I was able to observe the Jackobshavn glacier near Illulissat where it runs into the sea. It is a sight that sticks in my mind for its vastness and also its strangeness. Before its ice shelf broke up it was a fast moving glacier, but since then it has more than doubled its speed and become the fastest flowing glacier and one of the largest contributors to sea level rise on the planet. But compared to the Thwaites glacier it is a mere trickle.
There are signs that the Thwaites ice shelf is starting to come apart and could completely disappear within a few decades. Then it could start to melt rapidly. Alley could not say how long this might take but he compared predicting such a thing to dropping cups on a floor. You can tell on average how many cups might fracture a bit, or shatter or not be broken at all, but you wouldn’t want to bet your paycheck on what happens to the next cup. The report did indicate that the glacier could break up within a hundred years once the ice shelf is gone and that would raise sea levels by 11 feet. But he also said that they might be underestimating the rate of ice melt.
Last night my wife and I were admiring a flower and she took a picture of it. It was a gerbera daisy with beautiful, robust petals emanating from a long stock shaped like a sine curve on its side. Perhaps she will make a painting of it. She is very good at that. This morning the stock was barren and all of the petals were lying on the counter. It may seem strange to be comparing a glacier to a flower, but it’s no stranger than comparing it to falling crockery. It is a difference in time scale. Like flowers, glaciers have a beginning and an end. It can be difficult to predict when petals will suddenly fall off a flower. Perhaps by knowing how long the flower has been in bloom, or measuring the moisture in the petals and checking whether it has been pollinated or infected with thrips might help. Similarly, scientists have been studying the physics of ice fractures and the history of glacier melting to create computer models of how the great glaciers might melt under different climate scenarios.
Apparently it may take a few decades before the Thwaites loses its ice shelf. But then again it could happen faster. Just to the north of Thwaites, the much smaller Larsen B Ice Shelf astonished scientists by disintegrating almost completely in just five weeks. Like our gerbera daisy.
The report did not look into how a sea level rise of up to 11 meters from this one source would lead to knock-on effects on other glaciers in Antarctica and the Arctic, nor at the effects of increased permafrost melting as rising waters swamp low-lying areas. The whole process is driven by warming seas. Each September Antarctica's sea ice reaches its maximum extent. In 2023 a new record was broken. Previous lows were exceeded by a million square kilometers.
A research team from the University of New South Wales reported in 2020 that during the last interglacial period, between 129,000 and 116,000 years ago, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet caused a sea-level rise of more than three meters. This was caused by a rise of less than 2C of ocean warming.
During 2022, temperatures in parts of East Antarctica were recorded at record levels. An atmospheric river trapped heat over the continent. Near the Concordia station on March 18 the temperature was 40C higher than seasonal norms. During that period the Conger Ice Shelf collapsed. Although small, with an approximate surface area of 1,200 sq. km., this may be a harbinger of future rapid ice loss in East Antarctica. Scientists have thought that in the East Antarctic, cold water under the ice would protect the ice from melting. However, a Japanese team has found that warm water is penetrating under the ice and the Shirase Glacier Tongue is melting at a rate of seven to 16 meters per year. The Totten Ice Shelf is thought to be melting at a rate of 10 to 11 meters per year.
In a CBC radio news interview on September 9, 2017, Harold Wanless, University of Miami’s Geological Sciences Chairs stated in his deep voice: “a two-metre rise in sea level by 2100 is likely, but it’s also plausible it could be as much as five metres by the end of the century, and it will continue rising for centuries after that.” Such a rise would submerge vast coastal areas. Wanless’s warnings are higher than most predictions. However, a study published on January 25, 2021 in the journal The Cryosphere found that the rate of global ice loss is in line with the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It has accelerated by 65% between 1994 and 2017.
In 2008 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) outlined the effect of just a 0.5 sea level rise by 2070 on highly populated areas. Calcutta, India, headed the list, with 14 million people and $2.0 trillion in assets at risk. Gangzhou, China, was next, followed in order by: Mumbai, Miami, Shanghai, Bangkok, Tianjin, New York, Ho Chi Minh City, Dhaka, Ningbo, Tokyo, Alexandria, Haiphong, and Amsterdam. The last on the list, Amsterdam, would still have an estimated 1.4 million people and $843 billion in assets at risk if sea levels rise by just 0.5 meters by 2070. Overall, at least 275 million people live in vulnerable areas, with 4 out of 5 living in Asia.
Rising seas will displace hundreds of millions people by 2100 or soon after. These effects are baked in — the glaciers will continue to melt for hundreds of years. But the effects on life in the oceans will also be dramatic. As the seas rise and overtake the land, many of mankind’s “assets” will be submerged, likely causing massive pollution. This will include agricultural land inundated with fertilizers, chemical plants, oil and gas refineries and nuclear power stations. Many of these facilities are built right at water’s edge in order to facilitate cooling and also shipping. A look at just a few of these can be helpful in understanding the scope of the threat.
In the U.S., the Port Arthur Refinery (29.88, -93.96) and the Marathon refinery near Galveston Bay (29.37, -94.92) are both sitting on flat land beside the sea, elevation about 2 meters.
An example in South Korea is the GS Caltex, Refinery (34.834, 127.67), also at sea level. Those are just two of many examples.
It might be comfortable to think that these facilities are owned by mighty corporations and when the time comes they will decommission them. But, by the time they are pressured to act they may not have the resources. Once the liabilities of the big oil and gas companies are known to exceed their assets, and there are profit warnings, money will flow rapidly out to shareholders. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag.
On a smaller scale this scenario is playing out right now in Alberta. There are thousands of abandoned and orphaned wells in the province. The big oil and gas companies have been selling off these wells to smaller companies. Many of these are underfinanced and cannot afford to close off these turkeys. Some have declared bankruptcy. A recent ruling has indicated that these companies are still liable, but how do you collect from a shell?
There is a considerable number of nuclear power stations positioned right at water’s edge. One in France is the large Gravelines Nuclear Power Station ((51.01, 2.13). Some of it appears to be on about 1 to 2 meters of land. The image on Google Earth has been scrambled, so it is difficult to determine where the actual reactors are. This is not reassuring.
In China most of the more modern reactors on the coast have been built on mounds 14 meters or more high. Two exceptions are the Quinshan Nuclear Power Plant (30.436, 120.958), which has a Canadian-designed CANDU-6 reactor, built in 2003, and the Russian-designed Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant (34.687, 119.458), which is right at water level.
Japan, of course, has a difficult history with nuclear power. As early as 1969 the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant (364.623, 138.141) was considered to be the most dangerous due to its low elevation and exposure to earthquakes. It was finally closed down in 2011 after the Fukushima tragedy.
On March 11, 2011 a huge 6.9 earthquake did not initially damage the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, but it sent a 14-meter tsunami wave that disabled its cooling system. Three of the cores largely melted and high radioactive releases happened in the air and also in the sea. Remediation is ongoing. TEPCO, the operator of the plant, has indicated that it will take between 30 and 40 years to decommission the plant. Radioactivity is still leaking into surrounding seas. Rising sea levels and powerful storms will put many nuclear, oil and gas and coal power plants at risk of failure, causing an unknowable amount of ocean pollution.
Miami could have 4.8 million people and $3.5 trillion in assets at risk. Even so, the Florida Power and Light utility is proposing to expand the aptly named Turkey Point twin atomic power plants. On May 12, 2014, Howard Wanless was quoted by the Sun Sentinel as saying that Turkey Point will possibly be: “sitting out in the middle of Biscayne-Florida Bay” if sea levels rise by 4 feet to 6 feet by the end of the century, as some studies project. South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard added, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a worse place to build a nuclear power plant than between two national parks on a hurricane-swept coastline, subject to storm surge and sea-level rise.” There is no guarantee that these concerns will be considered seriously.
Wanless in Miami points out that no amount of pumping can save large areas of southern Florida because the sea is intruding into the low-lying porous sand and limestone. You can’t pump out the sea forever. $100 million has already been spent on pumping and they are heading towards $300 million. He notes: “This is what global warming looks like. If you live in south Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.” 
In a few years there will likely be water shortages in this region due to salt water intrusion. A similar situation exists in an area where I have paddled in Shanghai. The area is crisscrossed with canals. Some of the bridges that we passed under are beautiful stone structures up to 1600 years old. Fresh water is being pumped out of the ground to supply the region’s 24 million inhabitants, drawing ever more salt water into the area.
Most of the melting ice in Greenland has been on the west coast, and the rate of melt has increased dramatically in the last ten years. I saw that firsthand during two trips.
 Business Insider, Oct 12, 20012
 Huffington Post, January 24, 2015