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Episode 183 S5-20

Ocean Level Rise


Special Guest:

Dark Days in Denver Ch 20

~Dr. Fraser Shilling~

In the Dark Days in Denver adventure, Vince and Erika find a map of what the United States looks like. Due to climate change, the ocean levels have increased drastically. Today, Dr. Fraser Shilling, researcher at the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and co-director of the Road Ecology Center, UC Davis, joins us to discuss the realities of the ocean level increase and what the future may hold. 

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The ocean levels are increasing. Over the past 100 or so years of data gathering, the oceans have shown a steady increase in volume.


To measure the volume of the ocean waters, scientists have to sort out the accurate measurement from the normal rising and falling of the ocean due to natural effects. These include: tidal effects, moon cycles, storms and even the seasons. The effects of climate change on the oceans are assessed from there. The measurement systems have been in use for many years and have been dialed in to ensure that realistic numbers can be obtained. 

Over the past 10-20 years the ocean has been experiencing an accelerated rate of rise from the trends that were present in the past. There has been an eight inch rise at the Golden Gate measurement site over the last 100 years. This may not seem like a lot but if you live in a low-lying, flat area by the ocean, you may not agree. Every increase in ocean volume gives it the ability for waves and ocean movement to affect more areas. It doesn't take much change for areas like Louisiana, Florida, parts of the California Bay Area, etc. to become affected.

Scientists have identified historical evidence that the ocean has been much higher and lower in the past. During the ice age, ocean levels were much lower. Much of the water was trapped in ice. The ocean levels have also been historically higher. The last time the volume of the ocean was higher than it is now, scientists measured about 400-450 ppm of CO2 in the air. This is the same amount of CO2 scientists are currently measuring in our air, however the ocean has not had time to respond to this artificial CO2 inflation. At these levels of CO2 in the atmosphere the oceans should be about 20ft higher than they currently are. Even if all CO2 production was halted, the amount in the atmosphere will already guarantee this oceanic change.

It is obvious that there is a discrepancy between the historical CO2 number correlated with the ocean volume and our current CO2 levels and ocean volume. This discrepancy caused me to wonder if there could be a rapid adjustment. However, Dr. Shilling assured me that these changes take time but he did have other warnings. CO2 levels do more than just gradually make the world warmer. The heating of the planet causes weather patterns to change, influences the ability of ice to stay in tact and expands the physical volume of the water. As water warms it naturally increases volume.


The big question is: How much water volume change is a lot? Five to ten feet doesn't seem like much but coastal cities will be drastically impacted.


There are many concerns for a future with higher ocean levels. One of the concerns on the top of my list was the pollution that will impact the ocean when it swallows coastal cities. However, Dr. Shilling disagreed with the pollution being very high on the list. He pointed out that the loss of coastal property value could devastate society. The economic loss would cause mortgage system failures and could drive on of the greatest economic depressions ever. He also points out the loss of transportation systems and infrastructure would be astronomical. His concerns also include the movement of people. He indicated that the understanding of private and public property may become construed as people lose private property and look for a safer place to live in.

Approximately seventy percent of United States Citizens live in a county that butts up to the ocean. The loss in the economy from the damage to these counties will be a huge challenge to deal with. Proactive prevention of ocean level rise will help but it is very expensive. Fixing or adapting to these new circumstances will create a mountain of economic woes as well. Dealing with the economic consequences of ocean level rise will probably be the most expensive undertaking our country has ever faced, including all the wars of the past. Adding to this price tag will be the damage that storm intensity increase will cause throughout the country.

I was curious about the threat of nuclear plant loss as well as other industrial facilities that line our coastlines. Many utilities utilize the coastline, including waste management facilities. The water is used for cooling nuclear material, removing waste, etc. When these facilities are built the engineers build the ocean level into the project as an assumption. The assumption takes this number for granted with the assurance that it will never change. However, it is changing and this change will effect every system along the coastline.

In my opinion, humans don't have time to change what has already begun and even if there was time, usually humans do not make drastic enough changes unless they are forced to. My question is: Why is no one preparing for the change we know is going to happen? Dr. Shilling explained that this is a question no one in the mainstream (conventional), scientific, policy making and engineering professions wants to answer. It is talked about offline but never in public. The amount of societal unraveling the ocean level rise will cause makes it so scary that no one wants to face it! Directors of transportation entities in California call it "third rail" and instead of addressing the realities that are sure to happen, it is avoided.

The costs of greenhouse gas mitigation are astronomical. However, if these costs are not funded and nothing is done, the costs to handle the societal breakdown may be much higher. Anyone who understands this and is in a position to address it wants to leave the room and hide from the reality.

Dr. Shilling believes, policy makers aren't stepping up to the plate. He believes that they need to encourage businesses to reduce CO2 production. He points out that even in "green" states like California is supposed to be, oftentimes companies are protected because of their economical importance to the policy maker. Dr. Shilling also points out the wisdom of some politicians to suggest taxing the rich more to pay for the problem. Although I don't believe more taxes are a valid solution, it is true that as a country we need to take a serious look at what our future coastline will look like and start planning appropriately. 

Putting a band-aid on the issue will not solve the problem. The band-aids are already piled up so high that the problems won't be left for future generations, they are here now. Catastrophes like the Paradise fires and super storms are already happening. It is true that not everything can be attributed to climate change, however, many of the forecasts from ten years ago are accurately depicting the changes we are experiencing today.

By the end of this century, NOAH predicts a ten foot increase in ocean levels. That is a "huge" amount for coastal cities. People will have to move. Industries will be affected. Even inland states like Michigan will feel the effects.

The long term oceanic health will also be affected. The near shore coastal systems are currently among our most productive. These systems are the most visible and the most studied. Less is known about oceanic health further from the shore because it is more difficult to access. 

One thing is certain, the ocean will acidify. This will make it harder for anything with a calcareous skeleton to form a skeleton (anything with a mostly calcium based skeleton, including us). Corals and anything with a shell will be devastated. Phytoplankton, are one of the biggest oxygen producers on the planet, they will be drastically reduced or destroyed. After these systems are effected, it will create a ripple effect across the whole planet. 

The increase of CO2 will cause long lasting impacts on the ocean. There will be an increased stratification of the ocean (separation of warm and cold areas). The deep ocean will begin warming. The warming could possible release more methane into the air. Methane is stored in the ocean in various sources, including: frozen crystals, and methane in the sediment. The release will increase the effects of climate change and the increased warming will accelerate the rate of methane release. This becomes a feedback cycle that humans have very little control over.

The focus of policy makers tends to stay on CO2 because we are actively producing it and pumping it into the air. We can change our production numbers. However, methane could be a uncontrollable player that is a much bigger threat to human existence. 

Natural cycles that the earth experiences can be amplified or artificially created by the production of CO2. With the levels where they are at, some things may not be stoppable at this point. We are physically manufacturing a warmer period on this earth. Cooling the ocean takes a very long time. As a species, we didn't evolve in this climate. The modern evolution of the planet has only occurred over the past one hundred years due to the industrial and technological revolutions. As a species we are not adapted to live in the warmer climate.

Nature may find a way to solve the problem for us. There could be a period of volcanic activity that blocks the sun and cools the planet, however living through this rapid change would be very difficult. People that understand the problem we are facing as a species are scared by its consequences and generally feel powerless to stop it.

There will also be consequences to the inland states, once the coast line is lost. People will be on the move and headed inland. The climate change itself may negatively impact the inland states as well. Three quarters of the oxygen suppliers live in the ocean. If they are lost, it will mean big problems for oxygen reliant species. Also the rain is produced by the ocean and weather patterns. If the rain formation and weather patterns change, it may cause a loss of water supply to the regions that are growing most of the world's food. 

Every step we can take as a species to mitigate the change that is bound to come will help. However, many of the consequences will occur no matter what is done. It is best to prepare now to be ready for tomorrow.

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Dark Days in Denver Ch 20

~Dr. Fraser Shilling~

Fraser Shilling is co-director of the Road Ecology Center and a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He discusses near-term sea level rise and its impacts on people, roads and natural systems. He has 3 areas of research: 1) interactions between equity and water quality policy & decision-making; 2) sustainability indicator systems; and 3) transportation ecology. He obtained his doctorate in aquatic biology at the University of Southern California.

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