How to prepare ports and waterfronts for climate change?

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Is anyone thinking about rising seas and Seattle's future? We know now that the seas are rising much faster than expected and that our existing climate commitment is likely to lead to at least a meter in sea-level rise. As David Shukman writes for the BBC:

Professor Konrad Steffen from the University of Colorado, speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, highlighted new studies into ice loss in Greenland, showing it has accelerated over the last decade.
Professor Steffen, who has studied the Arctic ice for the past 35 years, told me: "I would predict sea level rise by 2100 in the order of one metre; it could be 1.2m or 0.9m. "But it is one meter or more seeing the current change, which is up to three times more than the average predicted by the IPCC." ...
Dr John Church of the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research added: "The most recent research showed that sea level is rising by 3mm a year since 1993, a rate well above the 20th century average."

In other words, while we want to do everything possible to move towards a zero impact society in the immediate future, we may well be looking at a meter or more of sea level rise even if we succeed completely (and, if current foot-dragging on climate laws are any indication, we should expect that sea level rise to be much higher than that -- indeed, the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group predicts Puget Sound will rise by 50 inches or more).

Yet here in Seattle, we're planning on making a massive investment in a new multi-billion dollar seawall and waterfront project that can only handle an 11 inch increase in sea level. And that seawall will only cover one small portion of our downtown waterfront.

What are the implications for ports? Consider this item, from the recent Copenhagen International Scientific Conference:

Similarly a study shows that while it will cost up to 128 billion yen (1 billion euro) to secure Japanese harbors against stronger winds and more frequent storms, failure to do so could result in the loss of 1.5 to 3.4 percent of Japan's GDP by 2085 (Japanese GDP in 2007 was 3.41 trillion euro). This is due to an increased number of days where harbors will be forced to close.
"Port planners should factor this in when designing port capacities. Their designs must be able to prevent delays and increased downtime due to winds and rain. Similarly, they must plan for sea defenses that can limit damage caused by waves. Failure to do so could lead to bottlenecks in the shipments of products and constrain Japanese economic growth" urges Miguel Esteban, Postdoctoral Fellow at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies.

Does the Port of Seattle have a climate change preparedness investment plan? Does it have any climate foresight and planning capacity at all? None that you can find on their website, other than this presentation from two years ago (PDF).

The point here is not to pick on Port officials or seawall engineers, it's to illuminate the degree to which our current planning and discussion are so out of touch with the known emerging reality that they are literally surreal. That's true not only in terms of waterfront planning, but in terms of transportation, economic development, energy infrastructure, building codes, water use, and so on.

What would it take for a city like Seattle to have a real discussion about how to prepare for life in a warming world?

Photo credit: The Associated Press


Easy solution: we build a floating bridge on dry land and wait for the waters to rise.

Posted by: Richard Pauli on March 20, 2009 4:08 PM

Good to consider - and does this mean that building a tunnel under the lake to replace old-n-busted Alaska Viaduct is a bad idea too?

Seems that Seattle (and nyc, oakland, sf, la, nola, miami, honolulu, tonga, SE Asia) ought to study up on Dutch methods.

Posted by: Ken O on March 20, 2009 10:26 PM

THANK YOU! The climate "issue" has evolved beyond LED and 10% reductions over 20 years... to a critical need to begin to anticipate land changes and start the systematic adaptation relocation program.

The Vancouver Peak Oil Group has some incredible graphics that map the probable 60 M sea rise.

This conversation needs critical attention!

Posted by: Anita on March 22, 2009 10:19 AM

Perhaps an actual sea level rise. But by then it will be too late. And how high will you build the seawall? 11 inches is clearly going to be the foundation.

Will insurance companies stop selling policies within 25, 50, or 100 feet of sea level. Will officials stop permitting construction or rebuilding or selling flood insurance in these areas?

I imagine that Manhattan, Boston, Miami and even Houston will be partially under water. I wonder if there is enough concrete to be had on the planet to build a wall high enough everywhere one will be needed. Or if there is enough concrete, will the Carbon released in it's production and installation become a self-defeating endeavor. Surely at some point, it will be cheaper to move than to rebuild. Where will everybody go?

At the same time, I can imagine Colorado (and therefore much of our great desert Southwest from Vegas to Phoenix and LA) being left high and dry with less snow pack and an earlier runoff. I have seen the white ring around Lake Powell. I have seen green land on Greenland where once there was ice. I have seen a portion of the 2 million acres of newly standing-dead, Lodge Pole Pines in our Colorado forests. But for a spark in an afternoon thunderstorm, standing quiet testament to changing climate and watershed conditions in the high country.

And why is the forest dead? And what's up with that bathtub ring? It's hotter and drier. But it's not dead, it's called a desert.

Insanity: Doing things they way they have always been done and expecting different results. - Albert Einstein.

So we're secretly hoping for volcanic eruption, an asteroid impact, a spontaneous return of a Little Ice Age, or the horror, some kind of massive untested geoengineering shade project on a global scale. CCS anyone? Move to Mars?

Or maybe a progressive CARBON TAX and a tax on imported carbon to set some price signals. Until then, (are we doomed?) nothing will change.

So in the spirit of business as usual, have marketing put out a "feel good campaign" and let's party party party. Don't worry, be happy. Burn less(more), acquire stuff, then more stuff. Borrow from the Future, borrow from the kids, borrow from the Chineese, spend $700 Billion (plus externalities) annually on Imported Carbon(Oil). Spend and tax but tax carbon not wages. And let's try a little harder not to leave the place worse than we found it.

Last one out of the building kindly turn out the lights.

There's an app for that. - Or there will be.

Posted by: Steve Heising on March 23, 2009 1:27 PM

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