While the climate change debate continues in some quarters in Washington, the impact of sea-level rise cut across political divides at the “Rising to the Challenge” conference in Norfolk, VA, earlier this week. Members of Congress and Virginia mayors from both political parties joined military, state and local officials to discuss the challenges sea level rise presents to the Hampton Roads area, as well as how to promote federal, state and local action.
Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Republican U.S. Representatives Scott Rigell and Robert Wittman and Democratic Representative Robert Scott, Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim (a Democrat), and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms (a Republican), joined Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense John Conger and Senior Advisor on the National Security Council Alice Hill. All called for coordination with all levels of government to move from technical discussion of sea-level rise to working policies.
“We cannot afford to do nothing, it is time to act,” Mayor Sessoms said, underscoring that the impacts of climate change are not a political issue, but a backyard issue threatening communities in Virginia.
The Front Lines of Sea Level Rise
Coastal communities in southeast Virginia are at the front lines of sea-level rise. Sinking land and rising seas have combined to produce the fastest rates of sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast for the Hampton Roads region, which is comprised of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton and 14 other localities in Southeast Virginia. Sea levels have risen more than 14 inches since 1930.
“Since it’s our highest probability, highest impact threat, why don’t we address it as such?” asked Norfolk’s Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response Jim Redick when discussing the significance of sea-level rise. Hampton Roads is the second-most affected by sea-level rise in the nation and has the second-largest population center at risk from sea-level rise. Norfolk officials estimate the city will need at least $1 billion in the coming decades to replace current infrastructure and keep water out of the city’s homes and businesses.
Military Is Speaking Up
Sea-level rise also threatens the region’s numerous major military facilities, including Naval Base Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base and the most vulnerable such base to rising seas, according to Rear Admiral Kevin Slates.
“This is a matter of national security,” said the National Security Council’s Hill. “It’s a mission-readiness issue.”
Rising seas also pose a threat to the region’s economic health—about 46 percent of the Hampton Roads economy comes from U.S. Defense Department spending.
This unique threat to the region has led the Department of Defense to partner with local and state government, local businesses and the community to work together on strategic, long-term regional planning on coastal resilience.
When pressed by panelists on how much sea-level rise the area will confront in the future, Rear Admiral John White explained that we can prevent the worst consequences if we address the root of climate change and “stop putting CO2 in the atmosphere.”
The conference was the latest in a series of events demonstrating that climate change need not be a partisan issue. A report called Risky Business: A Climate Risk Assessment for the US, released June 24 by former Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and entrepreneur Tom Steyer, provides a comprehensive valuation of financial risks the U.S. faces from climate change. While the report delves into agricultural, health and other climate impacts, it specifically calls out threats to coastal communities from sea-level rise and storm surges. It warns that within the next 15 years, higher sea levels alone will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion.
That risk was evident at the June 30 conference in Norfolk. “What is the cost if we don’t do anything?” asked Virginia Beach Republican Mayor Sessoms. “I think we’re going to see some numbers that are going to be staggering.”
Sessoms’ concern echoed testimony on June 18 from four Republican former EPA Administrators before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the urgent need for action on climate change. The former administrators also voiced their support of the EPA’s plan to regulate greenhouse gases from existing power plants.
Moving from Diagnosis to Prescription
The “Rising to the Challenge” conference showed that on the local and state level, there is strong bipartisan support and agreement that the problem of sea-level-rise facing Hampton Roads, its citizens, property and assets is an urgent one. It demands action and commitment to work together on solutions. “We have to move from endless diagnosis to prescription,” Sen. Kaine said. The engaged community in Hampton Roads is united by a sense of urgency and poised to grapple with this threat. We hope leaders in Washington and elsewhere are watching this example of elected officials doing what they are meant to do: working together to respond to their constituents’ problems.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in irreversible decline, with nothing to stop the entire glacial basin from disappearing into the sea, according to researchers at University of California Irvine and NASA.
The new study presents multiple lines of evidence—incorporating 40 years of observations that six massive glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector “have passed the point of no return,” according to glaciologist Eric Rignot, a University of California Irvine Earth system science professor who is also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The new study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
These glaciers already contribute significantly to sea level rise, releasing as much ice into the ocean each year as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet does. They contain enough ice to boost the global sea level by four feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected. Rignot said the findings will require that current predictions of sea level rise be revised upward.
“This sector will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the decades and centuries to come,” Rignot said. “A conservative estimate is that it could take several centuries for all of the ice to flow into the sea.”
Three Lines of Evidence
Three major lines of evidence point to the glaciers’ eventual demise: changes in their flow speeds, how much of each glacier floats on seawater, and the slope and depth below sea level of the terrain they’re flowing over. In a paper published last month, the research group showed that the speed at which the glaciers are moving has accelerated steadily for four decades, increasing the amount of ice draining from them by 77 percent from 1973 to 2013. This new study focuses on the other two lines of evidence.
The West Antarctic glaciers flow out from land over the ocean, with their front edges afloat. The point at which they lose contact with land is called the grounding line. Virtually all glacial melting occurs on the undersides of their floating sections—beyond the grounding line.
Just as a boat that’s run aground can float again if its cargo is unloaded, a glacier can float over an area where it used to be grounded if it becomes lighter, which it does by melting or by stretching out and thinning. The Antarctic glaciers studied by Rignot’s group have shrunk so much that they’re now floating above places where they used to sit solidly on land, which means the grounding lines are retreating inland.
They’re “buried under a thousand or more meters of ice, so it’s incredibly challenging for a human observer on the ice sheet surface to figure out exactly where the transition is,” Rignot said. “This analysis is best done via satellite techniques.”
The team used radar observations from the European Remote Sensing satellites (ERS-1 and ERS-2) between 1992 and 2011 to map the grounding lines’ inland creep. The satellites employ a method called radar interferometry that enables scientists to measure very precisely— within a quarter of an inch—how Earth’s surface is moving. Glaciers shift horizontally as they flow downstream, but their floating portions also rise and fall with changes in the tides. Rignot and his group mapped how far inland these vertical motions extend to locate the grounding lines.
The accelerating flow speeds and retreating grounding lines reinforce each other in a recurring loop. As glaciers move faster, they stretch out and thin, which decreases their weight and lifts them farther off the bedrock. As the grounding line retreats and more of the glacier becomes waterborne, there’s less resistance underneath, so the flow accelerates, and so on—with each action intensifying the next.
Slowing or stopping these changes requires “pinning points”—bumps or hills rising from the glacier bed that snag the ice from below. To locate them, researchers produced a more accurate map of bed elevation that combines ice velocity data from ERS-1 and ERS-2 and ice thickness data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission and other airborne campaigns. The results confirmed that just one pinning point remains upstream of the current grounding lines. Only Haynes Glacier has major bedrock obstructions upstream, but it drains a small sector and is retreating as rapidly as the other glaciers.
Bed topography is another key to the fate of the ice in this basin. All the glacier beds slope deeper below sea level as they extend inland. As they retreat, they cannot escape the ocean’s reach, and the relatively warm water melts them even more rapidly.
The accelerating flow rates, lack of pinning points and sloping bedrock all point to one conclusion, Rignot said:
“The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable. The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating parts of the glaciers. At this point, the end appears to be inevitable.”
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The British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico killed wildlife, destroyed coastlines and damaged local economies. Despite pleasant weather and calm waters, cleanup still took months and the effects will linger for years.
But last December, the Obama administration proposed a 5-year offshore oil drilling plan that would not only allow more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but also would expand drilling in the pristine and remote waters of the Arctic Ocean. These waters are home to threatened polar bears, endangered bowhead whales, walrus, seals, birds that range through every state in the union, and fish. Despite the biological richness of the ocean, much basic scientific data about the region, like what is important habitat for species like bowhead whales, walrus, birds, and fish, is lacking or outdated.
The Arctic Ocean and Native communities that rely on its bounty would be devastated by an oil spill. Conditions in the Arctic Ocean could make oil spill clean-up nearly impossible. Twenty-foot swells, persistent frozen sea conditions, hurricane force winds, and darkness for months of the year would be just some of the obstacles faced in cleaning up oil spilled in the Arctic Ocean. The region is also remote—1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, without a road system or deep-water ports.
A 5-year plan that allows oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, even though there is no proven technology to clean up oil spilled in these waters, ignores the important lessons of the BP oil spill. The Obama administration should reconsider its plan to drill for oil in these waters. Take a moment to voice your support for protecting America’s Arctic Ocean from destructive oil development. Your comments matter, and the officials in Washington, D.C. need to be reminded that Americans don’t want risky oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
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