Robust Discussion of Rising Seas

KQED’s Forum program devoted a full hour this morning to recent projections for sea level rise and the threat it poses to California. Listen to the archived program here.

I joined host Michael Krasny and guests Peter Gleick and Will Travis, to discuss some of the recent findings. Travis heads the Bay Conservation & Development Commission and Gleick’s Pacific Institute issued a new report on the impacts last week.

Travis is just back from a trip to The Netherlands where he was studying some of the engineering techniques that the Dutch have deployed, to keep the North Sea at bay. Gleick has been tracking the issue here in California since 1990.

Gleick’s impact projections were underscored last week when scientists at a climate conference in Copenhagen projected a potential one-meter rise in the mean sea level by the end of this century, depending on how soon and how much we’re able to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a pretty significant adjustment from the 2007 UN report, which had the rise pegged at a foot or two over the same time span. And two months ago, a USGS-led report postulated that a four-foot rise isn’t out of the question.

Some interesting questions and comments that came in from listeners:

– Sewage treatment plants in the Bay Area recently overwhelmed by storms are one glimpse into a future with higher sea levels.

– If pumps that convey water through the giant state and federal water projects in the Central Valley were solar-powered, it would reduce the carbon footprint of moving water around in California (often cited as 20% of our electricity use).

– A barrier at the Golden Gate could help “stem the tide” and potentially be part of a plant generating tidal power (Travis was skeptical).

– The Earth’s rotational bevavior also affects sea level and should be factored in.

In response to a listener who asked about a recent newspaper column that was dismissive of the prevailing climate science, I got the following note from Dave Johnson, a former Silicon Valley lawyer who teaches at Stanford:

“As to the climate-change contrarians, my short-form answer is this: I favor giving the scientifically-credible contrarian point of view some credit, and quite likely more than Al Gore or others would like. Why? Not because they necessarily have the science part right (or closer to right) than the IPCC.  Rather, it’s because the problem itself is a very complex system. Science is just now scoping the boundaries and behaviors of complex systems; to predict their behavior (especially of non-physical systems) will, to paraphrase Edward Witten, require ’22nd century’ knowledge.  As such, we all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.  In short, whether I agree or disagree with the contrarians is, objectively, of no moment whatsoever.  In science, the strongest advocate of a particular conclusion must embrace the most aggressive testing of that conclusion. “

Hard to disagree with that. It’s always perilous to dismiss contrarian views out of hand. Galileo was a contrarian.

Robust Discussion of Rising Seas 16 March,2009Craig Miller

15 thoughts on “Robust Discussion of Rising Seas”

  1. “(W)e all have to recognize the possibility, if not likelihood, that the global climate system might do things that we cannot fathom, much less predict. One possibility is self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two. The other, sadly, is the converse – a spin-out into disequilibrium. Objectively, each has its percentage of possibility; so, objectively, each has to be seriously considered.”

    Hard to disagree, Craig? I have to say I’m gobsmacked that you didn’t recognize this argument for the nonsense it is.

    To get to the heart of the argument, there is no possibility of a “self-correction to an equilibrium that can hold for another century or two” unless we get CO2 levels back under 350 ppm in a flaming hurry. Ask Inez Fung e.g. if you don’t want to take my word for it.

  2. BTW, let’s not forget that in climate science and science generally contrarian views don’t get rejected “out of hand.” They get rejected because after careful examination they’ve been determined to be wrong. Even so, there’s an endless supply of wannabe Galileos purporting to refute long-established science based on long-rejected arguments.

    The history of the rejection of many such arguments is documented in Spencer Weart’s excellent history “The Discovery of Global Warming,” and RealClimate is good for the current ones. The Will column was the subject of a recent post at RC.

  3. I was agreeing with his main point, which is that we dismiss contrary views to our peril. I’m not counting on a mysterious self-correction to occur in the atmosphere and save the day.

  4. OK, but it’s kind of scary that he seems to think such a thing is possible. All too many otherwise quite intelligent people seem prone to getting sucked in by that sort of pseudo-scientific rationalizing.

    I just now finished listening to the program and want to note that the reference was to a Debra Saunders column rather than the more recent George Will one as I had assumed. I thought your response was good. (Speaking of Saunders and pseudo-science, were you aware that her husband Wesley J. Smith is a fellow of the anti-evolution Discovery Institute? It’s a small world after all.)

    Regarding the program itself, I thought it was good overall but was disappointed that Will Travis dodged some critical issues. One was the toxic site inundation problem, which is going to be monumentally hard to actually fix. Conveniently for Will, it’s probably the RWQCB’s problem.

    Also, he implied that there would be upland retreat opportunities for most wetlands, which is absolutely not going to be the case in most of the South Bay if they stick to the present levee proposal. According to the EIR, the plan there is to depend instead on natural sediment transport to continually build up the wetlands in front of the levees. There’s no science to support the assumption that this process can be relied upon at all, to say nothing of what would happen under circumstances of rapid sea level rise.

  5. Greenland and Antarctic melt: To melt the ice of Greenland and Antarctica would take thousands of years under any realistic change in climate. In the case of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which accounts for 80% of the Earth’s current ice has existed for 14,000,000 years through a wide ranges of global climate conditions. The IPCC 2001 report states “Thresholds for disintegration of the East Antarctic ice sheet by surface melting involve warmings above 20° C. In that case, the ice sheet would decay over a period of at least 10,000 years. Studies have found that Greenland should be able to survive temperature rises higher than 3C. An ice sheet about half the size is known to have persisted there during the Eemian period, about 125,000 years ago, when temperatures were about 5C higher than today. Where is the global heat going to come from, the global temperature, measured by satellite has not increased in the last ten years, and has been cooling since 2003, all the while the CO2 has increased.

    Thus it is highly unlikely that the sea levels will rise 4.6 feet in the next century from Antarctic and Greenland ice melt. Maybe in several thousand years, but not by 2100. I would like to point out that the earths climate varies greatly over several thousand years. With a quiet sun, and cool PDO we are headed for 20-30 years of cooler climate. This year the Arctic sea ice returned to the average extent.

  6. We do see this reference to “global cooling” arise from time to time but we also see it contradicted. Obviously there are lots of ways to measure things but see Gretchen’s blog post from 2/24:

    “…the 10 warmest years on record (since 1880) have all occurred between 1997 and 2008, according to NASA.”

    This would not appear to indicate a cooling trend.

  7. Mr. Steele,

    You do not have to melt all of Greenland or Antarctica to get 4 feet of sea-level rise, just a tiny part of it. Greenland alone contains enough ice to raise sea level 6 meter (METERS!)

    And the comment about arctic sea ice is also wrong. The 2008-09 extent is far below average of the past century. It is higher than 06-08, but still going down. Look at

  8. Also, Mr. Steele, in your March 12th blog, (in addition to your rather ad hominem attacks on my Institute), you are guilty of cherry-picking data on sea-level rise. You show a graph of varying sea-level from 1994 and say “see, nothing happening…” Take a look at the ALL of the actual gauge data from 1856. You can very clearly see that sea level is going up. We reproduce the graph in our study (look at Figure 1), so nastily savaged by you as being produced at the government “tit.” Kind of odd, coming from someone employed or funded for much of your career by the government.

  9. Mr. Gleick, my apology for pointing out the obvious in such a crude manner, I will try to avoid such attacks in the future and be even more clear. As for the sea level rise, how do you know that the land the tide gage is sitting on did not sink? Did you investigate the possibility that the gage which rests in an active earth quake zone did not subside, or did you just take the gage reading at face value? There was a study of gage in northern Europe that showed that sinking ground accounted some of the “sea level rise.” I will see if I can locate the study. If you look at the cherry picked data satellite data you will see that sea level rise is now flat with the cooling ocean. the majority of the sea level rise is from expansion of the oceans. According to the Argo ocean buoys have shown over the past 4-5 years, “there has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant,” Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently told National Public Radio. Nothing very significant-except the ocean warming trend has stopped?!  Now the oceans are no longer warming and the sea levels have stopped rising. Do you think they are connected? Many qualified scientist think so. Mr Gleick, if the oceans are not warming and the sea level have stopped rising, why the hysteria in the your report. Oh, yes how much ice will have to melt to rise sea levels 4 feet, and how long would that take with a 3C increase in temperature: 10 years, 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years. I fear the answer is thousands of years. If you do not know, why raise everyones concerns with your shame report?

  10. Also, note that the arctic ice extent average from 1979 to 2000 was taken during a warm phase of the PDO. We have entered a cool phase since 2002, and the oceans are cooling, and the La Nina will become the dominant weather pattern for the next 20-30 years. More on the arctic ice during PDO phases in future posts.

  11. Of course, the sea-level gauge data are corrected for rising and falling land levels. The scientists who measure sea level do this routinely. What you see in the record is sea level rise, not some combination of sea-level rise and rising/falling land elevations.

    There is no hysteria in our report. Shame on you.

    As for how long it will take to raise sea levels, that of course depends on future emissions of greenhouse gases. Our scenario was a medium to medium/high scenario, but what do you know? Actual global emissions of greenhouse gases are already exceeding the HIGH scenario. So in fact, our evaluation may be conservative. And if climate deniers continue to prevent global efforts to reduce emissions, sea level will just go up faster and faster.

  12. Peter,

    Why did the sea level data stop at 2000? Why not show to at least 2008. I have down loaded the data an will be presenting a plot to 2008. I noted that the satellite sea level rise went flat about 2006.

    Here is an expert opinion, note the last sentence. “The IPCC adjusted the data because they need a rising trend. Could it be you need a rising trend for your report also.

    “But if there is one scientist who knows more about sea levels than anyone else in the world it is the Swedish geologist and physicist Nils-Axel Mörner, formerly chairman of the INQUA International Commission on Sea Level Change. And the uncompromising verdict of Dr Mörner, who for 35 years has been using every known scientific method to study sea levels all over the globe, is that all this talk about the sea rising is nothing but a colossal scare story.

    Despite fluctuations down as well as up, “the sea is not rising,” he says. “It hasn’t risen in 50 years.” If there is any rise this century it will “not be more than 10cm (four inches), with an uncertainty of plus or minus 10cm”. And quite apart from examining the hard evidence, he says, the elementary laws of physics (latent heat needed to melt ice) tell us that the apocalypse conjured up by Al Gore and Co could not possibly come about.

    The reason why Dr Mörner, formerly a Stockholm professor, is so certain that these claims about sea level rise are 100 per cent wrong is that they are all based on computer model predictions, whereas his findings are based on “going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world”.

    When running the International Commission on Sea Level Change, he launched a special project on the Maldives, whose leaders have for 20 years been calling for vast sums of international aid to stave off disaster. Six times he and his expert team visited the islands, to confirm that the sea has not risen for half a century. Before announcing his findings, he offered to show the inhabitants a film explaining why they had nothing to worry about. The government refused to let it be shown.

    Similarly in Tuvalu, where local leaders have been calling for the inhabitants to be evacuated for 20 years, the sea has if anything dropped in recent decades. The only evidence the scaremongers can cite is based on the fact that extracting groundwater for pineapple growing has allowed seawater to seep in to replace it. Meanwhile, Venice has been sinking rather than the Adriatic rising, says Dr Mörner.

    One of his most shocking discoveries was why the IPCC has been able to show sea levels rising by 2.3mm a year. Until 2003, even its own satellite-based evidence showed no upward trend. But suddenly the graph tilted upwards because the IPCC’s favoured experts had drawn on the finding of a single tide-gauge in Hong Kong harbour showing a 2.3mm rise. The entire global sea-level projection was then adjusted upwards by a “corrective factor” of 2.3mm, because, as the IPCC scientists admitted, they ‘needed to show a trend'”

  13. Yes, and I’ve posted some responses showing how Steele is cherry picking data to support a predetermined conclusion that there is no climate change. But readers who really want to read the science, rather than blogs about it from climate deniers, should go the the heart: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where the world’s best climate science is available:

  14. I did not say there was no climate change, I said the UHI had contaminated the data used in the models used to calculate your sea level changes. I gave the links to those facts. I will do a separate post on your claim that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has the best climate science. Even former IPCC members are discounting the IPCC results. In the mean time I have posted comments on your latest claims of cherry picking at

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Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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