Conservation Minnesota

Slowly Sinking in Paradise

Photo Credit: Chuck Dayton

Photo Credit: Chuck Dayton

Submitted by Conservation Minnesota Board Member, Chuck Dayton

Research Vessel Llyr, my sailing home for 2 and a half months this summer, is now in French Polynesia, visiting the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Tahiti groups of Islands. The Tuamotus are coral atolls, which average 5 feet above sea level, although much of the residential areas are within about two feet of current high tide.  If the most widely accepted predictions about sea level are correct, the Tuamotus will become uninhabitable by mid-century.

It is wonderful and sad and a little weird to be here in this place that looks like the classic cover of a travel magazine: beaches, coconut palms, turquoise waters, women with Gauguin faces, and at the same time to be reading John Englander’s new book High Tide on Main Street; Rising Sea Levels and the Coming Coastal Crisis.  Here, future sea level rise stares us in the face each day through the low shorelines.  When I see a baby or a pregnant woman, I can only think that those children will not be able to spend their lives where their voyageur ancestors settled centuries ago, the islands of their culture and heritage.

The book, High Tide on Main Street, collects and explains the scientific literature on ocean level increase, and this is not a new concept to those who have been reading about climate. Nevertheless to see it all pulled together is a very sobering read, which I highly recommend.

I recently sent a note to family and friends quoting a recent study observing that for each degree Celsius of temperature increase, the sea has risen to reach an equilibrium of 65 feet higher. My old friend and fellow environmental warrior, Peter Bachman, who pays close attention to stuff he reads, challenged me on that, because the prediction in this century is for maybe 2 degrees Celsius increase (we already have .8) and the main line scientific consensus is for only 4 to 5 feet of ocean increase.  But my report was accurate from the perspective of geological time, because it is referring to ultimate equilibrium. Here’s the quote from Englander’s book:

In 2008, Dr. David Archer showed what happens over longer periods of time when temperatures, ice sheets and sea levels reach a new equilibrium. Using the work of glaciologist Dr. Richard Alley, his analysis showed that sea level has changed by a stunning 20 meters, (65 feet) for every degree of change Celsius (1.8 degrees F.  Since the oceans and atmosphere have warmed almost one full degree, it is just a matter of time before sea level adjusts according to this historic relationship.

Englander points out that this study shows, with the .8 degree increase we already have, “based on 40 million years of actual history, not theoretical projections, sea levels will rise more than 50 feet, …once the ice has had time to melt. “  The melting of Antarctica and Greenland ice caps will be responsible for about 95 percent of sea level rise ultimately and the process will take at least centuries (if the predictions about tipping points come true) or perhaps millennia, but the RATE of melting is many thousands of times more rapid than the Earth has experienced in previous naturally-caused warmings.

2 years ago, Steve Piragis, Martha Brand and I were standing at the calving edge of the Illiulissat Glacier in Greenland, the largest outside of Antarctica, which is moving now at several times the rate of a few decades ago and accelerating.  (Its dramatic collapse was the feature of James Balog’s documentary, Chasing Ice. ) Thinking back about that view of the massive 2 mile high ice sheet oozing down into the fjord and out to sea, I now understand that we were witnessing the birth of a new era in the earth’s history, one that will last for thousands of years, and the first to be actually caused by our species.

I am sailing west across the Pacific with a unique family on the Research Vessel Llyr, a 53-foot ketch sailboat, on a 2 fold-mission for 2013: first, to observe, document and analyze social and economic changes from such environmental insults as climate change and overfishing as they impact coastal communities and coral reefs ; and second, to do diving surveys to document the health of coral reefs for Reef Check, a citizen science program for reef monitoring worldwide. The Dad/Skipper, Brooks McCutchen is a former practicing psychoanalyst.  Janis Steele, the Mom, is a PhD. Anthropologist and former documentary filmmaker. Both are now Maple Syrup Farmers in Massachusetts, and focus on the cultural politics and economics of small-scale, sustainable food production and marketing. The 3 boys, Connor, 18 (the First Mate), Rowan 15, and Gavin 10, all at home underwater, could not be more enthusiastic about being a real part of the project. I’ll add what I can as a survey diver, an environmental advocate, recovering lawyer, aspiring underwater photographer, and writer.  In 2014, they also expect to be based in Vanuatu as a service vessel, assisting communities to adjust to the impacts of a changing environment.

Upon reflection, it does not seem strange that the natives here are not shouting to the industrialized countries to stop burning fossil fuel, because neither are most of the citizens of Miami, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, and Sacramento, other costal areas which will be devastated by the end of this century, although some defensive measures are finally being taken. As a nation, we too continue our struthious (ostrich like) outlook, taking care of immediate needs while ignoring those of our grandchildren.  We live in the moment: this week, this month, this year, not this century.

Yet, Englander does not close with total gloom and doom (which of course doesn’t work and destroys hope). While recognizing that adaptation to sea level rise is inevitable, and will cost many billions, he of course notes that reducing carbon producing energy sources is the only hope of bending the rising curve of atmospheric and ocean carbon.  He closes with a famous quote from Winston Churchill as England and the free world faced the terror of the Third Reich:

If we fail, then the whole world. …Including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age…..  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if we last for a thousand years, men will still say, “this was their finest hour.”

The wartime quote highlights the reality of our situation.  We need a commitment equal to that which was required to fight and win a world war and we don’t have it. The other night, on board, we watched Les Miserables and I thought, perhaps those of us who are trying to build a real movement are like the young French revolutionaries on the barricades, expecting the multitudes to rise in support, which doesn’t happen. I hope that’s not true, and I am hopeful that the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way as evidenced by the responses to Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s recent climate speech.  Perhaps the reality of sea level rise will be the thing that finally wakes us up to the need for more commitment to action. Momentum, momentum, momentum.

But, don’t buy any waterfront property.

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