Speaker: Rising sea levels unstoppable
Dramatic changes coming as sea rises and shoreline moves inland, oceanographer says
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Daily News Staff Writer
Humanity has arrived at a geological intersection, and residents who live along the low-lying, densely populated coast of southeast Florida have a front row seat.
Dramatic changes will unfold in the next few decades as the sea continues to rise and the shoreline moves inland. It is time to think about the large-scale financial and societal impacts, John Englander, an oceanographer, global ocean explorer and author, told an audience on Friday.
“The world is changing,” he said. “It is stunning, how quickly it is changing.”
Englander, who penned the book High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis, was the keynote speaker at a symposium on rising sea levels. More than 200 people attended the event at Oxbridge Academy.
Englander’s remarks were followed by discussions among panelists who also took questions from the audience. The panelists including educators, government leaders, Realtors, water and natural resource managers, and others. Based on the discussions, the most pressing issues confronting South Florida include flooding; the threat to coastal development, beaches and tourism; property values; and the saltwater contamination of the fresh-water supply.
Jim Sackett, retired anchor from WPTV NewsChannel 5, moderated.
Fluctuations in ocean levels are not a new phenomenon for the earth. During the last peak ice age 20,000 years ago — the blink of an eye in geological time — the sea level was 390 feet below where it is today, Englander said. For the last 6,000 years, it has remained essentially constant. But now it is rising (about 8 inches over the last century) and will continue to do so for at least 1,000 years, Englander said.
This marks the first time that human civilization has collided with climate change and rising seas, he said.
The arctic has been frozen for three million years. Now the ice there is disappearing by as much as 7 percent a year, he said. As recently as 1970, scientists would not have thought that to be possible.
“Some September in the next 20 years, the arctic will be completely devoid of ice, and the period of time when it is ice-free will gradually expand each year for decades,” he said.
The arctic ice is important to the climate because it reflects 90 percent of the sun’s light, rather than absorbing it. Once that region turns to dark ocean, it will reflect only 6 percent of the light, he said. “The planet will absorb more heat. There’s nothing we can do to stop it right now.”
Most people don’t understand the science, he said. Most of Englander’s audiences believe that the melting polar ice cap contributes to sea level rise, Englander said. The melting of the arctic ice is significant because it is proof that the planet is warming. But it doesn’t add to sea level rise.
Unlike the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the arctic ice is not on land. It is frozen ocean, with 10 percent above the surface. The ice displaces the water, so when it melts away it won’t change the level of the seas.
If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, that would raise the sea level by 24 feet, he said. That could happen in about 3,000 years, he said (Antarctica has seven times more ice than Greenland).
Ninety percent of the world’s glaciers are receding, and all will eventually disappear. The collective impact of that is 2 to 3 feet of sea level rise.
Humans can’t reverse the changes in climate and sea level, though it may eventually be slowed. Meanwhile, there is no point in getting depressed about it, he said.
“We are an amazingly adaptive species,” he said. “It is probably our greatest strength. It may be emotionally challenging, but we’re resilient. We find ways to do that.”
See Thursday’s edition for a report on the panel discussion at the symposium.
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