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