Temperatures rise, ice melts and sea levels rise. That is the basic science behind the conclusion in the new book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, published in 2017 by Jeff Goodell. Goodell is contributing editor to Rolling Stone Magazine and author of several environmental books on climate change. Jeff visited numerous cities in the US, Europe and Asia that are facing the impacts of sea level rise now and more seriously in the future.
A major focus of Goodell’s book is the future of a submerged Miami by rising seas, and he discusses the business ramifications of this man-made catastrophe as awareness grows. Loss of real estate value due to tightening of mortgages in threatened areas, withholding of insurance, population exodus with the ultimate loss of the tax base needed to fund infrastructure improvements and fund basic services such as road repair, garbage collection, police and ambulance coverage. There is no state income tax, thus local governments are mostly funded by property taxes.
In Miami Beach, he experiences “blue sky” street flooding caused by rising sea level in combination with high tides. He discusses infrastructure needs on Miami Beach and limits on infrastructure development due to costs and concerns about scaring tourists and real estate buyers. He speaks with the biggest condo developer, Jorge Perez, and notes he does not even want to talk about sea level rise nor prepare for it fearing public awareness will hurt waterfront condo sales. “We build to code” is one answer he gave, while another was “I will be dead, so what does it matter.” The Risky Business Project, made up of Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Henry Paulson, estimate that Florida real estate valued between $15-23 billion will be underwater by 2050. Even worse, by 2100 the value of submerged real estate could go as high as $680 billion. An evolving awareness of this real estate dilemma is happening and many owners in vulnerable areas are hedging their bets and timing when they will make their exit according to Goodell. Generally, in the coastal areas, it is the pessimists selling to the optimists.
Norfolk, Virginia is home to the US Navy Atlantic fleet at Naval Station Norfolk. It is the largest naval base in the US and employs over 75,000 military and civilians to run the base. It will soon need to be relocated due to sea level rise according to former vice president Al Gore. Due to soil subsidence and sea level rise, a rainstorm is enough to currently flood major portions of the base. As water levels rise higher, access to the base will be cut off. In the meantime, four new double decker piers are being built at a cost of $250 million. To complete all the piers, the cost swells past $500 million. Despite these improvements, the life expectancy of the base is about 20-50 years. A former commander of Naval Station Norfolk estimates that it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to relocate the base to more protected areas. Military assets at risk around the world are staggering, the Pentagon manages over 555,000 facilities and 28 million acres of land that will be affected by sea level rise to some degree. One of the problems is that requesting funding to mitigate the impacts of climate change is not well received in the current Congress, so “code” must be used to try to sneak requests by the climate deniers. Saying piers need to be elevated due to recurring flooding instead of sea level rise is one method. The tremendous cost of addressing this current and future vital national security issue is not something that can wait.
In Rotterdam, Netherlands, the government is experienced with living near water and dealing with violent storms flooding their lands. As the result of the 1953 storm, they have constructed a series of surge gates on the Rhine River, known as the Maeslant Barrier, which close in the event of a violent storm. These were tremendously expensive ($450 million in 1997), and have been used only once in preventing flooding in the city. These like the proposed one in Venice (MOSE barrier) are built to deal with today’s storms and a slight sea level rise (a couple feet). They are not designed to address the rise (up to 9 feet according to Jim Hansen) that is expected as Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt faster than anticipated. Why not build to the higher levels? Costs and long planning periods are two reasons. To add a few more feet to these flood structures would be cost prohibitive.
During Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, 88,000 buildings were damaged by flooding and 44 people were killed resulting in $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity in New York City. You might say Hurricane Sandy changed the minds of many climate deniers there. One of the city’s resiliency efforts now includes building a 10-foot-high wall around Manhattan (informally known as the Big U), estimated at $3 billion and rising. Today, $129 billion in real estate is located in flood zones. The Big U would protect against a Hurricane Sandy level event, but not much more according to Goodell.
While talking about solutions, Goodell stresses the need to stay below the IPPC 2-degree C estimate, and momentarily delves into some geoengineering ideas such as spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cut sunlight; a topic in his book, How to Cool the Planet. In my opinion, a global ecosystem cannot be engineered, despite the conviction of some engineering firms and professionals. Ecosystems are too complex and engineering solutions are too simplistic. The two do not mix – the channelization of the Kissimmee River in central Florida and its deleterious effects on the Everglades is a prime example. Now, the US and Florida are spending billions trying to restore the Kissimmee River to some semblance of its former self.
The overall conclusion, I came away with after reading The Water Will Come is that the majority of people are just plain ignorant of what is coming. Those cities and others that are aware seem to be building or proposing solutions based on low-ball estimates of sea lever rise, without factoring in the rapidly evolving events in the Arctic and Antarctic. This is mainly due to costs, but scientific information is changing so rapidly that many cannot keep up or do not know what to believe.
In the US, the National Flood Insurance Program continues to allow homes and other buildings to be rebuilt in high hazard areas at the expense of the public. A much stricter program needs to be developed to provide disincentives for moving into high hazard flood prone areas. In 2017, natural disasters (mostly hurricanes and western fires) across the US cost $306 billion according to NOAA. Hurricane Harvey in Texas resulted in $125 billion in damages, Hurricane Maria caused $90 billion in Puerto Rico and still counting, while Hurricane Irma in Florida caused $50 billion in damages to buildings and infrastructure. An important ending thought: this is just the beginning.