Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Greenland Melting: The Winners and the Losers

We’re always talking about the victims of climate change: ruined Texas ranchers, flooded Pakistani farmers and desperate African migrants fleeing food shortages or resource conflicts. Today we’re looking at the other side of the coin: a man for whom climate change means striking gold – literally.

First, a little background. In 2007, the UN’s climate change panel warned that sea levels were rising due to global warming. By the end of the century, they said, oceans could be two feet higher than they are today.  They cited two undisputed facts: water expands as it warms; and mountain glaciers are melting across the globe, releasing their once-frozen reservoirs into the seas.

Two feet higher seas in about 90 years. It probably doesn’t sound so bad to people who don’t live in Miami, New Orleans or Bangladesh.

Meltwater lakes on Greenland ice sheet
But there was a catch.  Yes, the UN panel scientists measured the effect of ocean thermal expansion and mountain glacier melting. But they didn’t feel comfortable projecting a third factor: the rate of melting of the world’s great land-based ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica. Together, those ice sheets contain enough water to raise sea levels by more than 200 feet. But forecasting ice-sheet melting and the speed of ice flows was a daunting challenge back in 2007. So the UN panel made a footnote, and left it out completely.

So maybe you’re wondering: What’s been happening with the ice sheets since then? The news from Greenland has been coming fast and furious. Since 2007, it’s fair to say that virtually all researchers have upped their forecasts for ice melt there. With ice averaging about one mile in thickness over an expanse as vast as the land between New York and Denver, Greenland alone contains enough water to raise sea levels by 22 feet. And while much uncertainty remains, signs are everywhere that this long-dormant giant is growing very restless.

  • In each of the last two years, icebergs bigger than Manhattan have broken off the accelerating Petermann Glacier in the far northwest.
  • This summer, satellite measurements showed that 97% of the surface of Greenland ice was melting, up from about 50% in all prior summers.
  • Ice-quakes, the glacial equivalent of earth-quakes, have seen a dramatic increase throughout Greenland, and have spread north into once-stable cold zones. Ice-quakes occur when warming ice sheets destabilize, crack, and accelerate over rough ground.
  • Ice has receded by miles in coastal areas, exposing moonscapes of rock hidden for millennia.
  • The fishing industry in some settled southern towns has collapsed, as once-abundant fish and shrimp have fled northward from newly-warming waters.
Unstable: Ice quakes moving north

Scientists still don’t have a firm grip on the full meaning of all this for the world’s seacoasts, but they are clearly more concerned. Most are now looking for global sea-level rise of 2.5 to 6.5 feet this century, but all acknowledge that this could change rapidly. This is almost certainly bad news for the earth’s coastal communities. 

But it’s not bad for everyone.

It turns out that Greenland sits on some of the earth’s richest deposits of gold, iron, zinc and – most importantly – rare earth metals, essential for cellphones and other electronic devices. In the past, these deposits were locked behind an impermeable wall of ancient ice. But the retreating glaciers have uncovered a treasure trove of minerals, and mining companies from Australia to China are eager to get their hands on it. Greenland’s mining authority has issued 150 mineral exploration licenses, up from only 20 a decade ago. For Greenland’s 67,000 residents, this could mean lots of new jobs, and a measure of independence from their overseers in far-off Denmark.  All they need is for the ice to keep on melting.

"For me, I wouldn't mind if the whole ice cap disappears," Ole Christiansen, the chief executive of NunamMinerals, Greenland's largest domestic mining company, told the New York Times as he surveyed a proposed gold mining site near Nuuk, Greenland's capital. "As it melts, we're seeing new places with very attractive geology."

As the ice melts, Mr. Christiansen sees gold, and the potential for untold wealth. But not everyone will fare so well while Mr. Christiansen gets rich. This is because Greenland’s melting will raise sea levels – ultimately by about 22 feet. There are 22.9 million Americans whose homes will be underwater when that happens. Globally, two-thirds of the world’s largest cities (cities with more than five million people) are within 30 feet of sea level.  And in those cities and other low-elevation coastal zones live 634 million human souls.

Bangladesh: Red zones inundated
Consider the 150 million men, women and children of Bangladesh. This low-lying country in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River Delta will essentially cease to exist if Greenland's ice should disappear. We're not really talking about moving people to another place. This country -- with about half the population of the U.S. -- has virtually no other place for them to go to.

So if Mr. Christiansen gets his wish for more gold, almost one in ten humans across the globe would pay for it by fleeing inundated homelands. And for every single Greenland resident who may wish for the whole ice cap to disappear, there are 3,500 other souls living on land that would then be permanently reclaimed by the seas.

I know this sounds like a tongue lashing for a Greenland mining executive. But as Americans, we shouldn't be too hard on Mr. Christiansen. First of all, he’s not causing the warming that’s melting Greenland’s ice. That distinction goes to the countries with the highest per capita CO2 emissions: Australia, the U.S. and Canada. And his wish would fit in almost perfectly with the American election-year narrative: Create wealth at any cost, whatever the consequences for others, near and far.

But to some Christians, the God of the Bible appears to have an entirely different agenda. Consider his covenant with Abraham, one of the core milestones in the history of redemption. God told Abraham: “I will bless you … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  When a Christian responds to the God of Abraham, he is signing on to a plan to bless all the people of the earth – those “from earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast.”

Millions dwelling on those distant coasts are now in peril, and may soon be awash, if the current science is to be believed. The God of Abraham plans to bless them. Will he use us to do it? Or will we take Mr. Christiansen’s approach, blinded to distant grief by the brilliance of gold?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why North Carolina Banned Sea-Level Science

Every school child has learned about attempts by rulers to suppress science. Copernicus hid his findings till after his death, rather than being burned at the stake. Galileo recanted his proof that the Earth was not the motionless center of a revolving universe, and thereby avoided the same unpleasant fate. More recently, the famous “monkey trial” in 1925 tested whether a state could outlaw the teaching of science. And in one of the world's all-time greatest tragedies, more than 20 million Chinese perished in 1959 because of Mao's shackles on science.

In recent years, people of every faith (or none) have come to think that these sorts of displays were far behind us.
But this summer, the state of North Carolina turned back the clock one more time. The legislature passed a law forbidding state and local agencies to use the latest science for predicting sea-level rise in coastal planning – ignoring the input of all major coastal science organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Here’s how it happened:

In 2010, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) requested a report from a 13-member panel of the most reputable coastal scientists in the state to summarize the science regarding sea-level rise and recommend the expected increase that coastal planners should consider for the century ahead.  The panel worked for nine months, and produced a review of the most current scientific literature.  It was externally peer-reviewed by out-of-state scientists.  The final recommendation was for the state to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise by the end of the century.

39 inches of sea-level rise? It wasn’t really very surprising. Maine is planning for two meters by 2100; Delaware, 1.5 meters; Louisiana, one meter; California, 1.4 meters; and South Florida, two feet. 39 inches placed North Carolina pretty near the middle of the coastal planning spectrum.

Cape Hatteras: A sand spit in harm's way
The science panel’s report wasn’t based on guesswork. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences advised the U.S. Navy – which is hugely exposed – to plan on up to 2 meters of sea-level rise this century.  The U.S. Jet Propulsion Lab warned that ice-sheet and glacier melting are accelerating, and predicted that sea levels will rise one foot by mid-century, and faster thereafter. The inter-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program predicted 3-4 feet this century, but warned that new research makes the range “substantially greater than previously projected.”

All these researchers have noted that seas are warming, driving thermal expansion; and that mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are melting. Together, these factors are raising sea levels at much faster rates than the eight inches that occurred in the 20th century.

But back in North Carolina, the legislature wasn’t happy. In a landslide, the state Senate voted to forbid coastal planners from doing anything other than to extrapolate from the eight inches of sea-level rise that occurred in the 20th century.

Across the country and beyond, the state’s attempt to muzzle science was greeted with ridicule. A leading researcher from East Carolina University said: “We’re throwing this science out completely, and what’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science. You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”

A writer for Scientific American likened it to saying: “Do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore …. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.”

Even “The Colbert Report” got in on the act. "If your science gives you a result you don't like,” said the comedian, “pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved."

Faced with virtually unanimous contempt from the science community, the North Carolina legislature did some quick maneuvering. They withdrew their bill, and replaced it with one lasting only four years, prohibiting the CRC from implementing the science panel’s findings and calling on scientists to “do further studies” (which presumably, they were already doing without being told). The bill became law on August 1, 2012, when Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to veto the measure.

Some will now dismiss North Carolinians as anti-scientific bumpkins, but this simply cannot be. The state is home to respected research universities such as Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest and East Carolina, plus leading colleges such as Davidson. The Research Triangle is home to many high-tech companies, with legions of highly-educated employees. And the Outer Banks and Pamlico Peninsula are widely known to be especially vulnerable to coastal flooding. This state is home to plenty of brain power, and knows that it is highly exposed to sea levels.

Danger ahead: higher seas, strong storms
So what could be going on in Carolina, for such a law to tarnish the state’s reputation? Well, as always, it’s a good idea to follow the money.  Almost certainly, there are financial winners in losers in these kinds of games. This one is no exception.

It turns out that the force behind the legislation was a group called NC-20, comprised of real estate developers in North Carolina’s twenty coastal counties. NC-20’s chairman is director of a county economic development commission, and its president is a lobbyist for home builders on the Outer Banks. Its science advisor, with no background in coastal or climate science, is a senior fellow at a think tank tied to the fossil fuel industries.  NC-20 called the projected sea-level rise a "myth promoted by manmade global warming advocates."

The law’s primary legislative sponsor was state Rep. Pat McElraft , a real estate broker. Development interests have played a key role in financing Ms. McElraft's political career. The real estate industry has been the top contributor to her campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics database. Her single biggest contributor has been the N.C. Association of Realtors, followed by the N.C. Home Builders Association, according to the database.

North Carolina real estate developers and builders “saturate the General Assembly with contributions,” according to a report by Democracy North Carolina. The industry gave $664,000 to Gov. Perdue’s last campaign, was a top contributor to Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, and has been the top donor in prior campaigns of this year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate.

So what have the coastal real estate developers gotten in return for their largesse?  The anti-science law paints a pretty clear picture: The taxpayers of the state will build and maintain infrastructure for new developments in coastal flood plains; once they are sold, the profits go to the developers. 

The flood problem, however, belongs to American taxpayers and the new owners. Well, not so much the new owners. The state’s taxpayers are on the hook to maintain new roads, water and sewer systems, even after devastating coastal floods.  Federal taxpayers fund disaster assistance when storms flood these new developments as sea levels rise. 

But the new owners? Actually, they are covered by subsidized National Flood Insurance. When their homes are flooded or destroyed, American taxpayers from every state pick up the tab up to $350,000 per residence, and $1.0 million for commercial buildings. Taxpayers have already funded $19 billion of excess payments made for coastal insurance claims, and with rising sea levels, we’re headed for much more. So today, Carolinians can buy homes within reach of the rising seas, and Americans from every state will bail them out after coastal floods.

With the promise of big profits, and the taxpayers bearing all the risks, why wouldn’t North Carolina’s coastal developers cough up major dollars to ensure that state legislators turn a blind eye to the inevitable fate of their proposed building boom? There’s big money in coastal development, and the risks – while great – are largely borne by others.

What should be done?  Certainly, North Carolina voters should take a hard look at politicians who sell out their future state and local tax dollars to developers who finance their campaigns. But across the country, perhaps Americans should be asking whether it still makes sense for all of us to insure new coastal development. Especially in states which shut tight their eyes to avoid seeing what researchers everywhere are telling them.

“We don’t believe your climate change alarmism,” they seem to tell us. “But if it happens, you’d better be there to bail us out.”

I wonder how long the rest of us will continue to believe that this is such a good idea?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, September 8, 2012

National Flood Insurance: A Good Idea Gone Bad?

Last week, Gulf Coast residents nervously eyed the approach of Hurricane Isaac. Would it again devastate hapless Port au Prince? Thank God, no. Would it inundate the defenseless Florida Keys? Not strong enough, at that point. What about the Republicans in Tampa? They sighed with relief as the storm directed its sights elsewhere – toward New Orleans and the Delta region.

In bayou country, shrimp trawlers dashed up-river, oil workers shut down offshore platforms, and homeowners nailed up plywood.  Meanwhile, the storm crept slowly north through the warm Gulf waters, gathering massive amounts of moisture and increasing in power.

Outside the levees, Isaac flooded many communities
In the end, however, Isaac never gained the strength of a killer hurricane. But it was massive in scale, a slow-moving deluge that wreaked damage in the billions of dollars, according to preliminary estimates. Fortunately, many of the damaged structures had flood insurance, so maybe residents won’t be harmed that badly.

Did you ever wonder, however, where that flood insurance comes from, and who pays for it? For the most part, private insurers won’t touch this kind of risk. Instead, it’s provided by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), a division of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There are some good reasons to have the NFIP. Here’s how it got started:

In 1965, a massive hurricane – nicknamed “Billion Dollar Betsy” – struck the Gulf coast, claiming 75 lives and wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of homes. Not since the Galveston killer storm of 1900 had the Gulf been hit so hard, and insurers promptly jacked up their premiums to compensate for the flooding losses. Of course, consumers howled, and Congress listened.  By 1968, they had created the NFIP to provide flood insurance at reasonable rates, and private insurers happily withdrew from the flood risk market. But in the 1960’s, no one in Congress suspected that the weather might be growing more extreme, or that sea levels were beginning to rise.

In many ways, the NFIP reflects what is good about America. Our neighbors – near and far – often need help that can’t be found through private markets or charities.  The National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration, and FEMA always come alongside charities in helping disaster-stricken communities in times of need. The NFIP added something new to this: It encouraged sound flood preparation on the part of participating communities, and it got flood-plain property owners to contribute premiums to offset some of the costs of disaster relief.

For decades, it seemed to work like a charm.  Flood premiums roughly covered flood claims in most years, with about 5 percent overhead costs – now about $170 million per year – borne by taxpayers. But coastal communities flourished.  Under the protective umbrella of the NFIP, Florida’s beaches beckoned millions of new residents, driving a statewide population growth rate 2.7 times the national average. Mortgage lenders freed up credit for risky coastal development, vacation homes and condos sprung up by the thousands, and property values soared.  And the related Federal flood mitigation standards helped communities minimize flood damage when storms hit. It seemed a small price to pay, in a country committed to helping storm victims anyway.

But then came 2005. Three epic hurricanes – Katrina, Rita and Wilma – roared through the Gulf with devastating effect.  Suddenly, the nearly-solvent NFIP was saddled with $17 billion in excess claims, and no means to pay other than borrowing from the U.S. Treasury. The NFIP’s debt to taxpayers is still outstanding. In fact, at last count it stood at about $19 billion.

Curiously, you don’t hear much from the budget hawks about the flood program. But there are a few small voices beginning to raise the alarm. Here are a few of the core arguments:
  1. The coastal development enabled by the NFIP has been devastating to wetlands and ecologically-sensitive areas.  Much has been written about the value of “ecosystem services” provided by undeveloped coastal zones: runoff water purification, erosion control, weather mitigation and wildlife habitats, among others.  Once the land is developed, these services are generally lost to the greater society that once enjoyed the benefits.
  2. The NFIP actually encourages otherwise unlikely development in highly risky floodplains. Without it, developers and home buyers would have to pay much higher insurance rates. And while it’s easy to criticize insurance companies for overcharging, they’re actually doing what they’re paid to do: set rates based on risks. With the NFIP, our country is actually luring massive development into harm’s way.
  3. Harm is on the way.  The U.S. Climate Change Science Program has warned of likely increases in severity of storms, and the global science community agrees. In addition, sea levels are rising, and the consensus estimate for the balance of the century is another 3 feet, with many little-understood mechanisms adding to the risk that the estimates could change rapidly – in the wrong direction. A leading coastal scientist, Duke University’s Orrin Pilkey, urges us to assume 7 feet of rising seas by 2100.
  4. And all the evidence points to the fact that our institutions will do everything to defend human structures, once they’re built. The cry: “Protect our beaches!” actually means “Protect my condo!” And the resulting seawalls and levees end up destroying the beaches and wetlands. (E.g. As sea levels rise, the ecologically-irreplaceable Everglades will be long gone before sea water overwhelms Miami’s future levees.)
  5. The OECD has named Miami the number one global loser from sea level rise. And just three of our cities – Miami, New York and New Orleans – will suffer $6.6 TRILLION in sea-rise damage this century, according to their forecasts. That’s equal to just less than half the total national debt, in only three cities. Surely, we won’t want the NFIP to send us the bill for all that.
  6. The data isn’t available to make the case with certainty, but there’s reasonable evidence that much of the taxpayer funding for the NFIP and its huge debt subsidizes the richest households at the expense of the rest of us. Clearly, coastal communities have very high household incomes. Property values almost always come down as you move further away from the water. And many of the most exposed properties are vacation homes, resort hotels, and investment condos – hardly the profile of the hurricane victim that came to mind after Billion Dollar Betsey.
Insured homes in Hurricane Irene on Nags Head, NC
And since numbers like $19 billion are often so large as to lose much meaning, what else might we have done with debt that the NFIP has piled up to date by insuring flood plain properties?
  • We could have built a brand new Yankee Stadium for every baseball team in the American League, plus all those in the NL East as well.
  • Or we could have built nuclear plants to power between eight and eighteen million homes.
  • Or we could have doubled the budget of USAID, to provide economic assistance to the world’s neediest countries.

If these warnings are valid, then what should we do now? I wouldn’t encourage us to immediately jump on the fashionable budget-slashing bandwagon, and kill the NFIP tomorrow. This system has been in place for more than forty years, and the consequences can’t be reversed overnight without harming many innocent people. But the longer we wait to act, the greater the eventual harm. Policy makers need to begin a transitional phase immediately. Here are some principles that might guide us:
  1. Over the next decade, NFIP premiums should gradually increase to reflect the full cost of coastal and flood zone risk – to levels that would be supported by private insurers. Catastrophic flooding like in 2005 will indeed happen again, and probably very soon.
  2. Over a very short time, the NFIP should impose a moratorium on policies for new development in zones that will be flooded by a 5-foot rise in global sea levels. No new policies should be issued for development on barrier islands, which by their nature must shift inland if they are to survive at all in rising seas.
  3. Vacation homes should probably be phased out of the NFIP program as soon as is practicable. It’s awfully hard to argue for subsidizing people who can afford a weekend place in the Hamptons, or a condo in South Beach.
  4. After major losses, NFIP should provide incentives for claimants to relocate out of floodplains, rather than rebuild in harm’s way.
  5. Repetitive-loss properties should be carefully examined for exclusion from the program. Water levels are unforgiving. These properties aren’t unlucky; they’re just too close to the rising tides.

As we take prudent measures regarding the consequences of climate change, we must also remember the demands of justice.  To varying degrees, many coastal dwellers are the victims of the greenhouse gases that we’ve all poured into the atmosphere. We’re all going to suffer from our multi-generational carbon binge. But some people are more exposed to its effects than others. We’ve all created this problem. We must act soon to reduce its effects. And in the process, we must treat the most vulnerable with decency.

But we also have to tell each other the truth: The seas are rising; we can hardly expect our country to help us if we refuse to get out of harm’s way.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Rising Seas: A Peek Inside the Scientific Debate

The issue of rising sea levels came back into national focus last week when one of our presidential contenders used the matter as a laugh line before a throng of cheering supporters.  He recalled that his opponent had vowed to take action to stem rising sea levels, pausing with a perplexed grin, as the laughter grew to a raucous crescendo. Obviously, many Americans aren't very worried.

The event rekindled my interest in the topic. Two years ago, I read a fascinating book by Duke University’s Orrin Pilkey: The Rising Sea. Pilkey, seen by many as the dean of America’s coastal scientists, urged city planners in 2009 to plan on seven feet of sea level rise on U.S. coasts by the end of the century.  That would essentially eliminate beachfront development anywhere in the East.

But with the passage of several years, I figured there must be plenty of new material. There was. I settled on a $3.00 eBook offering by Daniel Grossman, a National Geographic editor, titled Deep Water: As Polar IceMelts, Scientists Debate How High Our Oceans Will Rise

I liked "Deep Water." In a few short hours of reading, Grossman guides the reader through the messy business of real scientific research: geologists and geochemists negotiating the challenges of hungry Hudson Bay polar bears, temperamental Australian rental vans and competing scientific specialties (and egos) to get to the bottom of genuine controversies.

In this case, the controversy was whether current levels of global warming should be expected to raise global sea levels by 62 feet, or perhaps only 31 feet, the consensus view supported by most geochemists.  The search for the answer takes the reader to Southwest Australia, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Boston and New York.

In a nutshell, much is already understood about ice ages and interglacial warm periods in the distant past: how warm or cold they were; how much CO2 was in the atmosphere at the time; and the advance and retreat of ice sheets – among many other features. Two warm periods, however, deserve special attention: the one preceding the last ice age 125,000 years ago (clumsily named “Stage 5e”), and one dated about 400,000 years ago (“Stage 11”). These two “interglacials” are thought to be the hottest times on earth for several millions of years – but only 1 degree Fahrenheit hotter than the world is today.

Scientists generally agree that much of both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melted during these two stages, raising global sea levels about 30 feet above where they are today. But geologists have recently found unmistakable signs of ancient fossil seashores dating back to Stage 11 in the geologically-stable regions of the Bahamas and Bermuda. And here’s the problem: those features are more than 60 feet above today’s sea levels.

Did sea levels rise more than 60 feet in these warm stages? If so, the implications are serious: The massive East Antarctic ice sheet had to have been aroused, in addition to the somewhat smaller Greenland and West Antarctic sheets. And while Stages 5e and 11 were slightly warmer than today, our era will bypass them both during this generation, with no end to heating in sight, due to our much higher levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, and continued inaction on curbing emissions.

In the end, it looks like 31 feet of additional sea level rise for Stages 5e and 11 is the more probable estimate. (Find out why for yourself!) But the journey is well worth the read, and I recommend that you follow the thread for yourself.

I should add that it’s not just idle curiosity driving these researchers. If we manage to stabilize the climate by significantly reducing greenhouse gases in our lifetime, there’s a good chance that sea levels will again peak at about 31 feet above where they are today. If we don’t, then then it's more likely that East Antarctica will also get in on the melting. We can only speculate at what that might mean. But even the lower level of 31 feet would inundate 25% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

And at the higher levels? Nobody wants to think about that, not even me.

Thanks for caring about this, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

More images related to sea level science:

USGS map of new coastline at 30' rise
Fossil beaches: Wave-cut terraces on geologically-unstable San Clemente, CA