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OP_ED: Goodbye Cape May (and many other coastal towns)
Last week, my wife and I took a much-needed summer vacation to Cape May, New Jersey. We've been to Cape May several times in the past on day trips, to check out the lighthouse or the world-class bird watching the area has to offer. This was the first time we spent several days there, staying in one of Cape May's Victorian-style bed and breakfasts in the town's historic district.
One morning I asked a local innkeeper if sea level rise due to global warming was something he ever thought about. His establishment was about a block from the beach. He and his wife appeared to have a lot of money invested in this particularly beautiful B&B, given other similar properties in the area were selling for millions.
He told me that sea level rise was not something they thought about. We talked for a few minutes about sea level rise and global warming, then he finally asked what everyone wants to know: How much will sea levels rise and how fast?
According to a teleconference from NASA recently: "Given what we know now about how the ocean expands as it warms and how ice sheets and glaciers are adding water to the seas, it's pretty certain we are locked into at least 3 feet of sea level rise, and probably more," said Steve Nerem of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead of the Sea Level Change Team. What scientists are unsure of is how quickly this will happen.
When I told the innkeeper about this projection from NASA and the fact that scientists think this will happen by at least the end of this century, he responded "that will change Cape May significantly." He paused for a few moments, I gather to reflect on the thought, and then he finished our conversation with, "I'm planning on selling before then" before walking off. It makes me sad to think of the innkeeper's response to the problem, selling his property to someone else. This is our problem to tackle.
According to NASA: "Scientists estimate that about one-third of sea level rise is caused by expansion of warmer ocean water, one-third is due to ice loss from the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the remaining third results from melting mountain glaciers. But the fate of the polar ice sheets could change that ratio and produce more rapid increases in the coming decades. The Greenland ice sheet, covering 660,000 square miles — nearly the area of Alaska — shed an average of 303 gigatons of ice a year over the past decade, according to satellite measurements. The Antarctic ice sheet, covering 5.4 million square miles — larger than the United States and India combined — has lost an average of 118 gigatons a year." All this ice being lost is adding to sea level rise.
When I returned home, I researched some of the projections for Cape May sea level rise. Projections vary because of different assumptions. Climate scientists model for different scenarios because they can't predict what, if anything, world leaders will do to reduce the carbon pollution heating our planet. Also sea levels are not rising uniformly all across the globe; natural effects such as ocean currents make a difference in sea level rise.
Climate Central is an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the American public. They have a cool interactive map tool which shows sea level rise and flooding risk for our coastlines, right down to neighborhood scale. The tool can be found at http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/.
The projections for the city of Cape May hit me like a ton of bricks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has projected a sea level rise ranging from 1.3 feet to a whopping 6.8 feet by 2100, depending on the scenario. Current sea level rise is trending at the upper range of projections. The threat of rising seas inundating this historic treasure of Victorian homes is very real. Coastal communities all over the planet like Cape May face the same threat: rising sea levels due to a warming planet from burning fossil fuels.
According to the latest satellite measurements from NASA, "Seas around the world have risen an average of nearly 3 inches since 1992, with some locations rising more than 9 inches due to natural variation." Since 1992, the rate of global sea level rise measured by satellites has been roughly twice the rate observed over the last century, showing acceleration of sea level rise.
No matter how much sea levels rise by 2100, sea level rise is expected to continue well beyond this century as a result of both past and future greenhouse gas emissions. We must stop treating the atmosphere like a public sewer for carbon pollution. The weaker our response to the climate crisis, the more sea level rise we'll face. Congress must take serious action to quickly make the transition to a carbon-free economy. Putting a price on carbon pollution would be a good start.
— Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby and lives in Dover.