Friday, November 13, 2009

The Oceans are Coming Part II — Living on the Land

Are you still talking about Cyclone Nargis? Have you ever heard of Cyclone Nargis? Here’s a reminder: on 1 May 2008 a weakening low-pressure system suddenly picked up energy as it approached Burma from the Bay of Bengal. By the second day of this rapid strengthening, Cyclone Nargis was blowing in excess of 135MPH and made landfall on the low-lying southern coast of Burma armed with vast reserves of cyclonic energy, a storm surge beneath, and constant heavy rain from above. The Irrawaddy Delta was devastated, causing at least 140,000 human deaths. Most of us have forgotten about it.

One reason you may have heard of Cyclone Nargis at the time, is that for a short while it was the cause of a major diplomatic incident, with the Burmese Junta refusing to accept aid and assistance from the West, while continuing with a meaningless referendum. Another reason you may have heard of Cyclone Nargis is because you live near to Burma; and there’s the rub – proximity is the single most important factor in deciding whether a story is newsworthy in the mainstream media, and until Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, devastating coastal flooding was just something that happened to “other people” as far as the vast majority of Americans were concerned.

That’s not going to change anytime soon – it’s partly down to our natural tendency for prioritising the local and the immediate, for survival reasons; but to a large extent it is also down to the cultural conditioning that exists in most civilisations in order to only value that which benefits the system that you are deemed to be part of. If you are American then that means that anything that doesn’t affect America, doesn’t matter. You can safely repeat that mantra for any civilised nation. It’s not necessarily good, but it’s true.

In Part I of this article, we examined the best available research, and, given the current best forecast of 2 metres and the consistent tendency of climate forecasters to undershoot their own subsequent observations, we concluded that a 4 metre sea level rise over the course of this century is quite likely.

In this part, we focus on two areas that are most familiar to the two authors, and also relevant to the majority of readers: Dmitry is going to look at the likely impact of future sea-level rise on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, not just in terms of the direct effects of flooding on habitation, but the many different indirect effects that sea-level rise will have; Keith is going to do the same for the east coast of England and the Netherlands, two places that have seen their fair share of flooding in the past, and are bound to suffer in the future.

The view from New England, by Dmitry Orlov

When it comes to addressing the effects of sea level rise that is expected to occur over the course of this century, there are many ways to immerse yourself in the subject. You might do some reading and make some field trips, talk to knowledgeable people, attend some seminars, and write some research papers. Or you might take an entire year to slowly traverse the landscape in question, and get a feel for it through a lot of direct observation, which is what I did. I spent about a year sailing around the Eastern Seaboard of North America, from the submerged coastal mountain range that is the coast of Maine north of Portland to the shifting sand dunes of St. Augustine in Florida, and most points in between, looking at both nature and historic sites along the way.

There certainly is nature to be found further inland, but rather few historic sites. It is very important to understand that, unlike the ancient and compact settlement patterns of Europe, and unlike its dense and active network of navigable rivers and canals, North America consists of a rather narrow but thickly settled coastal zone known as the Northeast Corridor, and the vast expanse of Wild West. Historically, the colonies survived through ocean trade. Until the advent of coal-fired railroads, the only parts of the interior that were economically viable were the ones that were within easy reach of a navigable waterway. Even then many inland settlers found grain to be too bulky for trade, and used it to make whiskey. The Erie Canal made Chicago a town rather than just a portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. The reason was simple: before the advent of railroads, it cost as much to transport cargo 30 or so miles overland as it did to ship it across the ocean. Until a railroad was built across Massachusetts, goods shipped from Chicago to Boston via the Erie Canal had to be loaded onto barges and floated down the Hudson River to New York, then transferred to schooners that took them up the coast.

It is also very important to understand that global trade is not, as one unfortunately often hears, only possible thanks to fossil fuels. Until the 1920s much of the shipping in Boston Harbour was by sail. Most of the ships were relatively small, with vast numbers of schooners of around 60 feet and crews of 10 or fewer. The age of container ships, bulk carriers, roll-on roll-offs (ROROs), and other monstrous oil-thirsty craft is quite recent, while the history of global trade is ancient, and proceeded in one of two ways: on foot (leading caravans of pack animals) or by sail. It is also important to note that coal never became competitive with sail in transporting bulk goods, and sail-based shipping persisted until the age of the marine diesel engine, which burns bunker fuel (a slightly upgraded crude oil). This substance will most likely no longer be available in the vast quantities required just a few decades from now, and certainly well before the end of the century. It seems plausible to think that the age of fossil fuels will end as it started, with oil giving way to coal, giving way to wind.

And so, in looking at the future of North America, it makes sense to examine historical settlement patterns and patterns of trade. Even after the powerful economic stimulant of fossil fuels is no longer flowing freely, the perennial choice will remain the same: make and ship trade goods, or remain backward and poor. The transportation options will once again be largely limited to the waterways, with the vast landlocked areas of North America becoming stagnant backwaters, unable to trade, and steadily depopulating. Many people look at the end of the fossil fuel age and envision a future that is much more local; and surely it will be, but what they do not envision is the effect of a radically altered transportation topology. The current tightly interconnected transportation mesh of rail links, highways, and airports will be gone; and in its place will arise a sparse, seasonal network favouring single modes of transport for each link (pack animal, river barge, or ocean sailboat), heavily weighted in favour of water transport, and even more heavily weighted in favour of sail. Transporting a few tons of cargo per crew member across the Atlantic will require a few weeks' worth of rations for the crew members and a bit of sailcloth for the ship, but the wind will still be free. Hauling the same amount of freight across the Appalachian mountain range, which runs the length of the Eastern Seaboard, would become something of an epic undertaking.

Looking, once again, at the historical settlement patterns along the Eastern Seaboard, it becomes clear that how prosperous and populous any given coastal settlement becomes has a lot to do with how good a harbour it has. The Carolinas present an excellent example of this: their climates and populations are broadly similar, yet North Carolina is poor while South Carolina is prosperous. The difference can be brought down to a single, overwhelming factor: South Carolina's Charleston Harbour. This is a splendid deep-water harbour, sheltered, with a wide inlet. North Carolina is dominated by Cape Hatteras, an area of shifting shoals and wide, shallow bays. To make matters worse, the Cape brings together the warm Gulf Stream, flowing north and turning east, with the terminus of the cold Labrador Current flowing south, and the mixture of the two creates a lot of unsettled weather. To make matters worse yet, it is within reach of tropical cyclones, which shift sand dunes, close and open ocean inlets, and play havoc with coastal communities that depend on access to the ocean. While Charleston Harbour is a major asset, Cape Hatteras is a world-class hazard to navigation. And so South Carolina grew rich by importing African slaves and exporting rice, indigo, and cotton through Charleston Harbour; while North Carolina, with its many shoals and few and treacherous navigable ocean inlets, developed no major towns and subsisted largely through fishing.

I've looked closely at many of the successful port towns, large and small, along the Eastern Seaboard: Portland, Newburyport, Salem, Boston, Newport, New York, Charleston, and St. Augustine, plus a few others. All of these have accumulated centuries of history, much of it connected with the sea and, hence, with faraway peoples and places, and this makes them major tourist destinations. The quality of the harbour, it turns out, had much to do with the relative success of a port: Boston's excellent harbour, with a wide channel and ample anchorages with good holding ground in the lee of a good set of sheltering harbour islands, allowed Boston to compete with New York in transatlantic trade. But beyond geological luck, something else stands out: the quality of the transition between water and land. In every good port there are dredged and marked approaches to piers and jetties, good seawalls high enough to keep out most storm surges, and dry land beyond, which is solid and graded flat. Over its long history as a port town, a hilly town, such as Portland, Boston, or New York, slowly grows an apron of land that is just high enough to be out of reach of most waves. Although some of these shoreline reinforcements are the result of ambitious projects (the cut-stone embankment in Newburyport is a good example), many of them are the result of a slow process of accretion by generations of people plying maritime trades, adjusting the shoreline to different uses by floating in and dumping rip-rap and solid fill, building seawalls, jetties and piers, seeing them pruned back by storms, and learning their lessons. Just how close to the margin these old structures already are became apparent to me last summer: during high tide, and thanks to the extra two feet of water we got for no adequately understood reason, some of the older, abandoned piers in Salem, Massachusetts were awash.

Most of these structures have been designed with hundred-year floods in mind, presumably because having to rebuild them every century or so is not such a bad thing. But then, given the expected ocean level rise, every hundred years will become every 10, then every year, and then every neap tide, then every high tide when there is an easterly wind, and then permanently awash at high tide. Who would be up to the thankless task of piling up more rocks and driving in more pilings, just to see them washed away a decade or so later? A related problem is the silting up of channels caused by accelerated erosion. Once waves can reach a stretch of land that hitherto only had to contend with rainwater and snow melt, it often dissolves catastrophically, and what was for centuries a waterside pasture or marshland protected by a bit of rock is transformed within a season or two into a gradually sloping mud flat. The mud then gets scoured out by each tide and settles in the deepest spots, which are the navigation channels. At what point everyone will decide that all of this very temporary shoring up and dredging is just too much work is entirely unclear, but it seems likely that enough other problems will occur at the same time to make the question moot. As we prepare to say "hello" to the rising waters, we should also prepare to bid "adieu" to deep-draught dockage.

What other problems might we have? The United States Environmental Protection Agency was nice enough to publish some approximate maps, colour-coding the results of an ocean level rise of up to 1.5m as red and up to 3.5m as blue for the entire Atlantic coast of North America. Since I am particularly well-acquainted with Boston, that part of their map drew my attention first. The resolution is not very high, but sometimes precision is superfluous. If you expect to find yourself standing on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue in 2050, should you expect the water be up to your navel, your nipples, or your eyeballs? Certainly, this would not be the map to consult on that particular occasion, but then would that be a time to consult a map at all? Broad brushstrokes are perfectly fine for the purposes of this discussion, just as a wrecking ball need not be swung with any great precision.

But to start with, here is a neat and tidy map of Boston within its current shoreline. Entering Boston Harbour from the Atlantic, we pass between Deer Island with its sewage treatment plant on the right and Long Island on the left. We proceed down the main channel into the inner harbour, passing between City Point on our left and Logan International Airport on our right. Past that, on our left we find the port of South Boston, which handles container ships, and the World Trade Centre, where cruise ships dock, while on our right is East Boston with its one remaining shipyard and marina, but where once the mighty clipper ships for the China tea trade were built. Further down the channel, we round the downtown with its skyscraper-studded financial district on our left. To our right is Mystic River, which has a liquefied natural gas tanker terminal, a dock for scrap iron barges, and a car ferry port. Turning further left, we pass Charlestown Navy Yard and the Charles River Dam (which should have properly been called the Charles River Pumping Station). Beyond is the Charles River Basin, ringed by lovely waterside parks, which, on good days and bad, are full of bicyclists and joggers. The river itself is also normally quite full of sailing dinghies, rowing sculls, canoes, and kayaks. Three large universities — Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Boston University — are located right on the river, and each has a boathouse. (Northeastern University is landlocked, but has a boathouse nevertheless.)

Before the Charles River Dam was built, Charles River was brackish and tidal, and smelled rather bad. The pumping station houses several large diesel engines that drive turbines that pump down the river during high tides and heavy rains, to prevent the river from leaving its banks. I have spent a year or so living at a marina directly downstream of the dam, and have observed that the pumping station does not run very often, but when it does it is quite an impressive sight. The tidal range is about 3 metres, and so with a 1.5-metre rise it would have to be running over half of the time, a 3m rise would force it to run continuously, and a 4m rise would likely put it underwater for good.

And here is the map prepared by our friends at the EPA. What's red goes under at 1.5 metres rise, what's blue goes under at 3.5m rise, tan is either dry or uncovers at low tide at 3.5 metres rise (distinction not shown), and light blue is currently water. As we enter the harbour, Deer Island on our right is now again an island because the dam connecting it to the town of Winthrop is gone, as is much of Winthrop. Long Island, the barrier island on our left, is mostly washed out as well. Logan International Airport still has its control tower above water, but now only caters to sea planes. Port of South Boston and World Trade Centre are no more; same with East Boston's shipyard facilities. Downtown stands as an island, but is rather hard to reach because all the highway tunnels are underwater, as are the docks. Mystic River facilities are gone as well. Charles River Dam is out of commission, and Charles River Basin is once again brackish and tidal all the way upstream to Watertown (off the map to the left), so-called because it has another, smaller dam, and supplied all of Boston's water before an aqueduct was built to a reservoir quite far away. Prior to closing their doors, MIT, Harvard, and Boston University have spent the remainder of their rapidly dwindling endowments on dikes, dams, and pumping stations, to no avail.

To be perfectly candid, looking at this map does not fill me with optimism for the future of our fair City on a Hill. It seems that in due course it will turn into a landscape studded with abandoned wrecks of buildings standing knee-deep in a swirling colloidal suspension of excrement and garbage. What are the chances of preserving road access, or the electric grid, or water and sewer services under such conditions? And is it worth anyone's trouble to even try, if it is understood that another decade will bring another few centimetres of ocean level rise, and that in response the shoreline will move a few kilometres further inland? Would it not be wiser to abandon entire areas as the water comes in, understanding that once it is in, it is there to stay?

But that leaves open an important question: What about Boston as a port? The same question applies to any other port, or, for that matter, just about any stretch of shoreline, for, as we will see in Part III, Boston's case is quite typical. Suppose you are a planter, happily growing wheat close enough to the coast to walk it down to the waterline with the help of some mules, and you would like to exchange that wheat (baked into hard biscuits and packed in waterproof tins) with some sailors in exchange for a few bottles of wine, some chocolate, and some silk cloth for a bridal gown (life goes on, you know). You pack the tins in panniers, strap the panniers onto your mules, and walk in stately procession toward the coast (mules aren't exactly swift animals, and 1 mile per hour is what they generally peg out at). With port facilities permanently submerged, where do you intersect with your sailor friends to effect the exchange?

Things are not as hopeless as they would seem. After all, we did manage to colonise the entire planet using sailboats and without any port facilities to start with. A variety of techniques, some ancient, some decidedly twenty-first century, can be brought to bear to solve this problem. The problem most people face in adapting to the rapidly transforming landscape is not technical but psychological: they will insist on attempting to run their existing systems until they crash, simply because they have so much invested in them. This will mean that most people will simply deal themselves out of the game, and that the volume of global trade will diminish, perhaps by several orders of magnitude. But it will not stop altogether, and may eventually recover somewhat.

In The European Lowlands by Keith Farnish

Walking the grassy embankment between the tidal River Orford and the dusty fields of East Suffolk, it becomes starkly clear what sea level rise would mean to this part of the English coast. As I walk northwards the brackish water laps the broken-down concrete sills and oozes through the cracks, eroding away silt from the dike that I am striding along. Marsh Samphire seems to glow in the October sun; a tasty treat, but rare enough to be a delicacy in these parts. To my left, a cloud of dust is whipped up by the breeze, helped on its way by the harrows of a tractor: it’s been a dry month, and the frail earth is easily moved by the action of the wind. Weak, exhausted soil; the result of decades of relentless tillage in a land that is dependent upon constant drainage via a highly complex system of ditches and waterways.

The land here may be flat and low, but there is enough height on Orford Ness to mean that I can’t make out the North Sea, even from the top of this dike. But I can hear it as it washes through the stones that make up this ephemeral spur of land and then pulls back, moving the shingle in eddies down the coast. Farmland to my left; seas to my right – what must the people who live here think?

Constant dread, would be one expectation; but somehow I don’t think that is the case. If we make our way 100 miles north-west to the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, then we experience a world of sea-level denial:
The Middle Level is the central and largest section of the Great Level of the Fens, reclaimed by drainage during the mid-17th Century.

Its river system consists of over 120 miles (190 kilometres) of watercourses most of which are also navigations and has a catchment of just over 170,000 acres (70,000 hectares).

The efficient operation of the system is vital to the safety and prosperity of over 100,000 people who live and work in the area. But for the operations of the Commissioners and boards, much of the fen land would be under water for much of the year, accesses from higher ground would be cut-off and many of the present land uses, which are taken for granted, would be impossible.
Stern warnings indeed, but calmed by the claims of the Middle Level Commission; something we also see for another of the large Internal Drainage Boards (IBDs), that of South Holland, a 95,000 acre part of Lincolnshire, which states: "Although the entire area is at considerable theoretical risk of river flooding and inundation from the sea, the actual risk is substantially reduced by the work that we do in partnership with Local Authorities, the Environment Agency and Natural England."

Everything will be fine if they do their job? There is a clue in the word “fine”, as the balancing act between inundation and successful drainage rests on the finest of lines; something you can easily see if you enter a very conservative 2 metre sea level rise into the Firetree global flood map:

That’s the Fenlands gone, then, in all practical sense. Plug in something approaching the more dramatic scenarios discussed in Part One of this series, and you see what can only be described as an entirely new landscape: a 5 metre rise creates a larger North Sea, extending southwards to Cambridge, and taking a five mile slice off the Lincolnshire coast. No more holidays in Skegness and, probably more significantly, about 10 Gigawatts of electricity generation capability (about 15% of the UK total) is at or below sea level. That’s just in one particular part of England; on a larger scale, given the propensity for nuclear power stations to be on the coast and coal-fired power stations to be near rivers (for cooling water), a five metre rise in sea level would pretty much have the UK’s power supply bollixed. You won’t see that in any official reports.

Back to the fertile croplands of the Fens, and neither will you see this startling fact mentioned: the pumping station at St Germans, two miles south-west of Kings Lynn, is just about the only thing preventing the aforementioned 170,000 acres of Fenland (the Middle Level) from flooding, even without sea-level rise. It would only take a power failure during a heavy period of rain or a high spring tide, with the sluice gates down, to quickly engulf the area. With a 5 metre rise, the new state-of-the-art system – due to be completed in 2010 – will be underwater all the time. With a storm surge, like that experienced in 1953, a mere two metre rise should suffice to flood the whole of the Middle Level, with the St Germans pumping station sputtering to an ungainly halt. If you want to see the one thing that lies between safety and the flooding of 265 square miles of land, click on this link. Comforting, isn’t it?

Do you know what it would mean to bring marshland back to the East of England on the kind of scale envisaged with just a modest sea-level rise? Not only will the land become unstable for the majority of buildings currently in the area, and totally incapable of supporting agriculture of any kind beyond sheep grazing; the Fenlands, the Broads, and the East Suffolk, Essex and Kent coasts will experience the unwelcome return of malaria. Malaria in the UK; something that up until the urgent Canutian shoring up of the coast in the 19 c. was tolerated as an occupational hazard by the few who lived there, but would be a scourge upon modern towns and cities. As MJ Dobson writes, in a sobering paper on the incidence of malaria in England:
On every count, the marshland populations recorded the highest adult and child mortality rates. Average crude death rates were as high as 60, 70 or 80 per 1000 — levels which could be two to three times those of neighbouring non-marshland parishes. Life expectancy at birth was little more than 30 years for the sickly marshland residents and nearly half of all recorded deaths occurred at age 10 years or below. Burial patterns from year to year and season to season were also extremely volatile in the marshes and there was a very close correspondence between fluctuations in summer temperatures and the level of mortality in the autumn and following spring. The hottest summers were always followed by the unhealthiest and most mortal times in the marshlands.
A marshy land experiencing rising temperatures: this could be any coastal region in the world, coming to a time near you.

Dutch Denial

Never underestimate the Dutch: apart from being a race of phenomenally linguistic people who have found an almost perfect social balance between freedom and responsibility, at least compared to the rest of the civilised world, they also manage to keep a level head when a fifth of the Netherlands is only inhabitable by humans because of thousands of miles of dikes.

I suppose when you have to squint far into the past to see the deadliest of floods experienced by your people, knowing that in the last 100 years only one flood event has taken a significant number of lives, then a feeling of safety is bound to embrace you to a certain extent. But what if you do peer back?

1717 is regarded as the year of the last great flood in the Netherlands; the Christmas Flood which is estimated to have led to the deaths of 14,000 people in a single night. Return to 1570, and the All Saints flood is said to have taken many thousands of lives. Similarly in 1530, 1421, 1404, 1287... St Lucia’s Flood in 1287 washed away between 50 and 80 thousand rural lives in the low-lying central plains of Holland. Back and back, a pattern of death that should serve to haunt the cultural memories of the Dutch – it really should, regardless of how safe things may feel at the moment:
Of all the United Provinces, Frieseland and Groningen have suffered, and continue to suffer, most from these floods. Exposed to the full rage of the north, north-west, and west winds, the waters of the angry Atlantic and Polar seas rush towards these provinces, pour through the inlets of its barrier reef – the Helder, (Hels-deur – hell’s door) the Vlie, and the more northern gates – heap them up in the inland Zuyder Zee, burst or overtop its dykes, and spread themselves over the country, sometimes to the very borders of Hanover. Thousands of men and cattle perish, the gates of the barriers become widened, and the dominion of the inland sea enlarged.
This paragraph, from E. and R. Littell’s “Living Age” (1848) predates any major engineering works, apart from the piecemeal implementation of thousands of local dikes, which were only ever meant to provide temporary respite from flooding. A remarkable plan, albeit primarily motivated by the desire for more farmland and population space, appeared in Modern Mechanix in 1930 (courtesy of the Strange Maps Blog), proposing the construction of a 450 mile long, 30 metre high wall across the central North Sea, with another slightly smaller one curving every which way to block off the southern end.

Absurdly impractical, as well as ecologically and politically ruinous, perhaps; but the construction of the Afsluitdijk (literally “Closure Dike”) across the mouth of the 2,000 square mile Zuiderzee between 1927 and 1933, was certainly close to the limits of engineering in that period, and is still the largest single land “reclamation” project ever completed. The word “reclamation” is quoted intentionally, for what exactly is “reclaimed” when the oceans are banished from a place where they once existed?

This assertiveness, the almost messianic approach to claiming for a nation what was never its property, is foolhardy at best, and pathological at worst. What was once ocean can never truly be land unless the cycles of the climate deem it to be so – and we are undoubtedly taking them in the opposite direction. If we wilfully claim ascendancy over the incumbent waters, as the Dutch and the British have done over the last 800 years or so in their respective lowlands, then eventually the mindset that dominates is one of impregnability.

But the waters will return, not only to the coastline of eastern England as the sluice gates fail, but also to overtop the Afsluitdijk which is just 7 metres high. Remember back in Part One, when the 1953 flood reached 4.55 metres above the Normal Amsterdam Water Level? Well, the risk is increasing all the time; not only as the sea level rises, but as the energy in the oceans increases and – something that is the epitome of risk – the population grows inexorably. The denial culture that blossoms behind coastal defences is alive and well in the Netherlands, according to Maaskant, Jonkman and Bouwer:
The projected population growth in flood prone areas is higher than the average in the Netherlands between 2000 and 2040. Due to this effect the potential number of fatalities is projected to increase by 68% on average for 10 different flood scenarios, not including impacts from climate change and sea level rise. Just sea level rise of 0.30 m leads to an average 20% increase in the number of fatalities. The combined impact of sea level rise and population growth leads to an estimated doubling in the potential number of fatalities. Taking into account increasing probability of flooding due to sea level rise and extreme river discharges, the expected number of fatalities could quadruple by 2040.

(“Future risk of flooding: an analysis of changes in potential loss of life in South Holland”, Environmental Science & Policy, 2009)
“Reclaimed land” is an anachronism because you cannot reclaim what you never had – the sea will reclaim the land soon; sooner than you can imagine.

* * *

For a while yet, coastal destruction caused by sea level rise will be seen as something that happens to someone else, somewhere else (or to you, but then that's just your bad luck). Social inertia will follow its usual course, causing people to insure themselves against fires and other minor accidents, sweat the little details of public health and safety, fight terrorism, while steadfastly ignoring the elephant in the room that is about to sit down on their heads. At what point will it become obvious to just about everyone that the gods saw their plans, laughed at them, and then cancelled them? Will it then be too late to do anything to prepare, or will those near the coast simply join the ranks of environmental migrants? And if you do start taking steps to prepare now, will you be viewed as a harmless eccentric, an alarmist crackpot, or a dangerous subversive?

In response to these questions, we are sure to hear a chorus of "Gloom and doom!" Ah, the "doomers" and the doomed, what beautiful music they make! Be that as it may; In Part III of this series, we will leave questions of denial and social inertia and political climate nonsense behind, and concentrate on What Might Work.

Keith Farnish is author of "Time's Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis" ( and also writes The Earth Blog and The Unsuitablog. He enjoys being a husband and dad, walking around and growing things.
Further reading:
Climate Change Puts Trillions of Dollars in Assets at Risk Along U.S. Coasts


Anonymous said...

Excellent survey article, with good examples (but it's "piers", not "peers").

I am personally concerned about certain Spanish ports, particularly the ports of Cádiz (on the Atlantic) and Barcelona (Mediterranean). Cádiz is on a peninsula that is totally flat and a two meter rise would wipe out the historic city entirely. What earthquakes and a tsunami did not manage to do, a rise in the ocean could do for cretain. Lisbon is in a terrible position as well.

The Barcelona port by some marshland already (mouth of a river), totally exposed even with a one meter rise. But even worse is the fact that the Barcelona _airport_ is also in the same area.

If the predictions are correct, these are two disasters waiting to happen.

I mention these two because they are places I know very well and care about. They also happen to be two of the most strategic ports in Spain.

I think it's time that people start thinking seriously about this. Thanks to Dmitry and Keith for bringing this topic out into the open.

Scott Supak said...

Fascinating reading. Thank you.

Bad link by Keith, should be:

I would be interested in hearing what some of the new ways to get the cargo off the mules and onto the ships might be!

Andrew Butt said...

Interesting take on just two locations - makes you wonder as you expand the scale to China, where 80% live within a day's drive of an ocean.

I liked the linkage to utilities (power and others) that are typically located near water. All the emergency-plans seem to deal with major problems one at a time, with the assumption that the major problems will quietly queue up and wait their turn.

Doomster? Nope, actualist (a term from JHK I believe). Back to a re-reading of Reinventing Collapse (my teenage son's latest favourite book), and a newly acquired copy of Time's Up. I used to worry and fret for my children - but really the younger generation seems far more able to re-adjust.

Dr. Doom said...

Humm, must be about 80% of modern transport of goods move in and out of seaports. That's a lot of in infrastructure to support. Just when you begin run of out the best fossil fuel for transport, and are relatively crippled by that blow, and the ever increasing population pressure, a changing climate and rising seas cause more problems, a few decades (?) out.

Further loss of farm lands, etc. and the danger of misplacing shrinking resources into saving the unsavible (sp?). I think this all spells collapse, it's just the timing and the extent of the effects that need to be worked out. Perhaps in stages, and more in some places than in others, but then there's those interconnected globalization aspects.

Hey, it could be worse, like depending upon the Tibetan Plateau for your fresh water supply after about 2050, like about a billion people do now.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Butt:

"Doomster? Nope, actualist (a term from JHK I believe). Back to a re-reading of Reinventing Collapse (my teenage son's latest favourite book), and a newly acquired copy of Time's Up. I used to worry and fret for my children - but really the younger generation seems far more able to re-adjust."

Mentally, yes, but in practical terms the younger generation has one problem: they don't know how to do anything. Using a broom is foreign territory!

But if they bring expectations down, as well as the illusory concept of "rights" -- such as "I have a right to a college education, a big house, several cars and unlimited gadgets", then they're moving in the right direction.

I say this as the father of teenagers who are beginning to see the collapse for what it is. The entire culture is in denial, for now at least, but cracks are showing. In the cracks are the opportunities, too.

Telling the truth is not being a doomster. The truth is the truth. My old teacher Hans Bethe used to say in his lectures that the nice thing about physics is that you can study it but you can't change it... it gives us a sense of permanence.

The truth can never be something perverted, it's always pure. I think the young sense that, and it's a good thing.

If you think about it, this industrial age has been very weird. Its main achievement, on a human level, has been to destroy the family and create huge dependence on experts, i.e., disabling people. This is something that boosters don't want to talk about. Also to foster an explosive population growth, something that cannot be discussed (why on earth not?). People make jokes about the Chinese method, they condemn them, but at least they saw what was happening, they recognized finiteness.

Anonymous said...

The link to the EPA maps, in case anyone wants to see the prognosis for the rest of the U.S. Atlantic and Caribbean shorlines:

Anonymous said...

Even after the powerful economic stimulant of fossil fuels is no longer flowing freely, the perennial choice will remain the same: make and ship trade goods, or remain backward and poor. The transportation options will once again be largely limited to the waterways, with the vast landlocked areas of North America becoming stagnant backwaters, unable to trade, and steadily depopulating.

In the short run, I must disagree. Before the choice between trade and backwardness there is the choice between survival and starvation. Cheap fossil fuels and government-subsidized roads and railways have led to the much-discussed "hollowing out" of the continent, a.k.a. rural flight: as farms mechanize, they require less labor and cannot employ their own younger generation, forcing the grown children of farmers into urban areas in search of economic opportunity. As fossil fuels become more expensive, this trend can be expected to reverse itself to the extent that the population breaks through their denial. Petroleum is both the fuel for modern farm machinery and an essential input to the manufacture of many agricultural chemicals, and natural gas is the raw material for the rest. When these substances are priced into unaffordability, human and animal labor (and manure) must be substituted if farming is to continue. Further, it takes a great deal more fossil fuel to move Midwestern-produced foodstuffs to coastal dwelling humans year after year than to move unemployed coastal dwellers to the Midwest once. Many of these displaced coastal dwellers will be, at first, lousy farmers, but eventually they will get the hang of it and farm production will recover, although it won't show up statistically (even if anyone is keeping statistics at that point) because a high percentage of farm products will be consumed by the farm families themselves and thus will not enter the official economy.

This outcome will not happen as a spontaneous movement. It will require visionary leadership. In fact, it may be among the last things the Federal government can do for the people. As farms fail and are taken over by banks which then fail, Washington may become the owner of a great deal of farmland. It could distribute that farmland in a series of land runs, modeled after the land runs of the 19th century. Those coastal dwellers most likely to settle these Federally-distributed lands are ironically those who were the best adapted to collapse conditions where they were, those who were already growing vegetables and raising chickens and foraging in parks for wild foods. The competent and adaptable will thus self-select, leaving those still in denial to their own devices. The likelihood of this scenario coming to pass, in any one person's estimation, will depend directly on the person's opinion of the Federal government.

The North Coast said...

This all augers ill for the recovery of the Miami condo market, doesn't it? Non-seasonal flooding of the streets by seawater is becoming commonplace there.

Most of the successful development of new economies in more favorable locations will be spontaneous. Governments are slow and stupid but the leading edge of business will be quick to disinvest in dying cities and enterprises, and exploit new opportunities.

The smart money will soon start fleeing the coastal cities, as well as the arid Southwest with its chronic water shortages.

Where will it go? Probably to the battered, cheap Midwestern cities, that are well above sea level, located on major rivers and inland seas (like Lake Michigan)and ripe for redevelopment because they are in a state of total economic collapse now due to the death of the industries that used to support them. Lots of cheap land for sale in Cleveland, Detroit, and other battered Midwestern tank towns.

Anonymous said...

wow. really nice detailed work dmitry & keith.

the specifics of how we 'trade' via sea is not something i have thought about much. quite an infrastructure; that already has to be renewed more often than dryland structures due to seashore conditions.

having spent some time at the beach area[ a long peninsula as i remember] of savanah ga's tybee island i get some of the sense of loss any significant sea level rise will mean.

like scott i wanted to know of the ways a temporary 'port' could operate. in this regards my wife & i bought a lot & salvageable house in a poor struggling village on a large river[once was a port of course]. we got it for 3k. i also bought a 24'sailboat which has a 12in. keel that runs the length of the boat so i could 'dock' anywhere & less likely to wreck on shoals/obstacles. anyway i look forward to enjoying, & learning to sail. the boat has been the one prep i bought that brings forth a smile as i like the water.

i do notice that the old 'ports' on the river are at large stream entrances & are about 10 miles or so apart[ a radius of a day or so by mule for the inland folks near the river?].

i was struck dmitry by u'r 'backward & poor' phrase. i guess i think that a semi-secluded tribe[s] of a 100-1000 or so could be quite content; but that would be a setup for disease when there was outside contact; not to mention the inbreeding[of thought too]. anyway spices anyone? the spice[s] of life?... is perhaps u'r point.

Jan Lundberg said...

As serious as Keith's and Dmitry's discussion of sea-level rise is, forcing us to imagine what looks like inevitable inundations of disastrous proportions, it does not figure in the factor of the Greenland ice sheet's or Antarctica ice-shelf's rapid contribution to sea level rise. See the excerpt below of yet more alarming news. The acceleration of melting and slippage is out of control, folks. But don't toss your computer or your car keys -- if you're fighting fire with fire in your use of technology to help save the Earth. - JL

A Warming Arctic:
Greenland's Ice Sheet Melting Faster than Ever
By Christoph Seidler
Der Spiegel, Nov. 13, 2009

Everyone knows that the ice sheet on Greenland is melting. But new research shows it is disappearing much faster than previously thought. The findings could mean that ocean levels are also rising more quickly.

The dimensions of this frosty giant go way beyond human imagination. With a surface area spanning some 1.7 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles), a view of Greenland's ice above the Sermeq-Kujalleq glacier near Ilulisat makes it seem endless. The idea that this sheet of ice, which is up to three kilometers thick in parts, is melting seems absurd in the extreme.

The Sheet of Ice Disappears
But the large number of gigantic icebergs -- and the valley into which they are slowly sliding -- tell a different story. Here, as elsewhere in Greenland, a gigantic upheaval is underway. In recent years, the glacier has receded by around 15 kilometers; the ongoing meltdown appears unstoppable. Just how quickly Greenland's ice is melting remains a matter of some debate, but the melting ice is contributing to rising ocean levels -- with potentially dramatic consequences for millions across the globe. Were Greenland to lose all of its ice, sea levels would rise some seven meters higher than today's levels. Such a scenario will not become reality overnight -- indeed the process could last hundreds of years. But new results from a team of Dutch researchers suggest that conservative estimates as to the speed with which the ice is melting should be shelved. According to the study, the rate at which Greenland's ice is melting has accelerated substantially in recent years...

[see nine photos and read whole article at,1518,661192,00.html#ref=nlint]
The above post was added to the Culture Change posting of Keith's and Dmitry's article:

the Rev Jerry Gloryhole said...

Very nice, as always. What a canal the Big Dig will make! For a few decades, anyway...

I'm with Joanhello in that getting enough food to eat will trump all for some years to come, given the erratic weather and loss of both farmland and farm knowledge. Governments that can arrange the production of crops will be the only ones that survive, as well as the ones under siege by starving refugees.
Screw gold:
start hoarding your lead, ladies and gents.
And get yourselves some farmable land.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! If the melting of the Greenland ice would give us a 7m rise in sea level, then the melting of the Antarctica ice, which is (assuming equal depth) 7.8 times as big, would raise sea levels an additional 54m and change. This means the place I'm currently living, which I had though was high enough to be safe, will be 17m under. And that's not counting ice on the North American and Eurasian continents. Sounds like that farmable land had better be at least 100m up.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Orlov: I admire your thinking & writing. As a sailor, and maritime history enthusiast, I find your writings about the sea and the return of sail especially intriguing. I wonder if you might expand these essays into a full book about the future of transportation and trade; how past practices would inform the future?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Patrick -

I'd love to write about sailing rather than collapse or climate disruption. In fact, I am planning to do it. Right now I am hauled out and in the middle of a large refit, so I am pretty much pegged out with boat stuff, for the time being. But slightly longer term I am working on a plan for making utilitarian sailboats, for living aboard, coastwise, and mobile schools, clinics and workshops, using a process that is sustainable and carbon-neutral.

Anonymous said...

As a dutchmen I know some researches and debates are done since about ten years about the effects of a sea level rise. For example one conclusion is that when the water will rise more than 6 meters, it becomes about more "economic" to replace the Randstad population (the most densily popupated circle A'dam-The Hague-Rotterdam-Utrecht) than to raise the level of the dikes. The most vulnerable point is not the protection against the sea, but against the river Rhine. If high storm tide is combined with high river discharge, the water of the river has no way to go than to spill over the dikes near Rotterdam. So now, a huge project is designed that combines highering the river dikes with creating new catchment areas along the river. Highly costly ofcourse, but interesting for nature, as it will create again dynamic flood forests and plains.

Amsterdam East (where is my office building) just announced a price for the most innovative ecological floating house. I think this is not a bad idea... We already have floating roads (light roads on truf areas). Although it hasn't an ecological image, polystyrene might be the key to this all.
It has no leakage, it is very durable, cheap, resource economic, and an amazing floating capacity.


Jim said...

Great post, thank you.

Here's a collection of the latest sea level news.

Anonymous said...

Too bad polystyrene is made from petroleum.

Jim said...

An interesting complication is the likelihood that the new coastlines will not be kissed by sweet ocean waters, but instead will be under siege from toxic algae blooms.

If the worst happens to the oceans, as predicted by Jeremy Jackson[1], they will be dominated by anaerobic microbes that emit gigatons of H2S and neurotoxins. Sailing through this poisonous soup may be impossible.

[1] Brave New Ocean

Dmitry Orlov said...

Jim -

Good presentation, and I urge people to look at it. As far as sailing the anoxic waters and the dead zones, that's like sailing the Black Sea, which is quite beautiful. It doesn't matter that there's H2S under your keel. Of course, if it comes bubbling up, then you die, but that's an unusual occurrence.

Anonymous said...

I think the temptation is great to imagine the collapse of our culture looking like a movie of its evolution played in reverse.
But I think that prediction of future technological devolution in response to the disappearance of cheap oil is hard to predict.
To imagine the return of sail is attractive. But what would the ships be built out of? The ship-building wood that was once so plentiful has largely been harvested. Ship building technology would have to adapt to the inferior stock now available. And the number of ships that could be built with what is available would certainly be much fewer than what plies the high seas at present.
Sails were made of cotton. And cotton in the age of sail was synonymous with slavery. Are the two inseparable? I hope so. But in any case, raising enough cotton to make enough sails to power ships with tonnage equivalent to today's oil powered merchant fleet would probably not be possible.
As for an intermediary coal-powered fleet, that isn't all that easy either. The coal close to the surface has been mined. Mining now means monstrous draglines and mountaintop removal, both of which are petroleum intensive. In a devolved post-oil culture, coal will be a lot less available than it is now.
I would guess that by and large, we cannot just run the movie in reverse. I opt for imagining a more modest future poorer in goods but perhaps richer in social capital.

Anonymous said...

If man kills land and the sea,too, the only solution is to move into, like, a TV set or the Web.

Dmitry's comment about sulphuric acid ties in very nicely with people who think the apocalypse (the religiously orchestrated one) is coming. Isn't hell supposed to be extremely sulphuric?

Incidentally, and as I feared, the Bay of Cádiz in Spain would be wet toast if the oceans rise as expected. For some reason, the flood maps for the Barcelona port/airport area don't show it under water. It's got to be a mistake since they sit by a flat marshy area by a river mouth.

Dmitry Orlov said...

A -

Good comment.

I am well aware of the paltry choices of boatbuilding materials that will be available. Traditional designs and construction methods are finished as far as new construction, and even maintenance will become problematic before too long.

I am working on a plan for building more or less arbitrary numbers of ocean-worthy sailboats that will not require deep-draft anchorage or dockage and can be built and maintained using manual labor using methods and materials that will be sustainable and carbon-neutral over geologic periods of time. Hardly any new technology will be required.

I agree that demand for freight, and boats, will eventually fall as the population recedes to numbers below the residual carrying capacity of the planet.

Stay tuned.

the Rev Jerry Gloryhole said...

A, Kollapsnik-
Sails then were actually of hemp...sails, ropes, flags, uniforms, all. Much easier to grow. No pesticides, no herbicides, no slaves.

Anonymous said...

anon from above on 11/16@6:11[trouble with my google account]

the boat we bought for big river sailing is from plans using essentially hardware store materials.
here is the website.

we found a 'vacationer'[upper right boat] someone had made for sale. the boat is actually 21' but has a 'snout' to utilize light winds via more sail.

there are plans for 3 different size sailboats; this is the largest.

Anonymous said...

@ Rev. Jerry at 11/19/09 8:54:00 PM:

"Sails then were actually of hemp...sails, ropes, flags, uniforms, all."

The Norse used wool for sails (and much else) in their sea-based expansion, using extremely simple weaving technology to boot. There are lots of options available providing that the skills are still practiced or recoverable.

subgenius said...

Before everybody gets carried away on the old sail-making tech, it should be remembered the sails of that era where square sails, rather than the more modern bermudan/marconi leg'o'mutton style triangular sail.

Why does this matter, you may ask?

The modern sail acts (mostly) as an aerofoil. This requires a very specific 3 dimensional shape, rather than the simple 2 dimensional shape of a square sail. This is why racing yachts require regular sail replacement - the sails stretch and lose their shape and thus their efficiency.

Modern materials hold their shape far better than the old materials.

On a positive note, the Chinese lug sail (Junk rig) has reasonably similar performance (not quite so close winded, but better off the wind performance) and doesn't suffer the same stresses (you can make them out of almost anything).

Dr. Doom said...

"I agree that demand for freight, and boats, will eventually fall as the population recedes to numbers below the residual carrying capacity of the planet."

Per many ecologists, that number is under a billion people, globally.

Dmitry, would you care to elaborate on this important point? It seems to me that you are preparing for a mobile "boat people" society, that can operate as coastal traders. Meanwhile, the continental interiors collapse and depopulate. But it will likely not be a peaceful process, and landing in unfamiliar or even familiar ports after an extended absence at sea could be fraught with dangers.

I know this sounds like the script for a 1940s Hollywood B movie, something starring Errol Flynn and called Barbary Coast, but that's what it appears to me. Is this what you envision?

Dmitry Orlov said...

"Is this what you envision?"

I envision that now is the time to do the research, the design, and the prototyping, to leave a legacy of technology behind that will allow sail transport to exist.

Without that effort, the window of opportunity for innovation will close for a very long time, and people trying to go to sea by the end of the century will resemble those poor Haitians braving the Caribbean swell in their leaky raft-like contraptions.

As far as population collapse, the European settled America after the native populations collapsed due to smallpox, so that will be nothing new or original.

As far as ports - they will all be underwater, but new coves, bays and tidal estuaries will open up further inland.

Anonymous said...

Somebody tells me privately that the rise in sea level will be less, say, in the Mediterranean, than in the Atlantic, but how can this be? Physics says that the levels of these communicating bodies of water will be even. Is there something I'm missing?

Anonymous said...

re weather here in the midwest...bizarre... yet in a subtle way unless u spend a lot of time outside.

we're zone 6 but in a micro climate that borders on 5.

we have yet to fireup the woodstove. we used a little spot electric heating. couple of mornings 28 or so. mid 50-60 most days.

no significant rain for weeks now--not the case during summer. still flies, butterflies, bees this weekend. my wife commented how strange, & that maybe this global warming will be bigger than the financial/oil problems[she doesn't read the 'doomer/downer' stuff but listens some to NPR].


weight loss said...

I would be interested in hearing what some of the new ways to get the cargo off the mules and onto the ships might be!

Tony said...

Dmitry, saw this and thought of you: The Hipboot Tour, "a series of coastal community roundtables and outreach events designed to bring the latest science in sea level rise and ice sheets to officials and citizens on the US east coast – where over three feet of sea level rise is now considered likely if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced."

Tony said...

Anon, re regional differences in sea level: different parts of the ocean have different temperatures, and a significant portion of sea level rise is due to thermal expansion. There are other issues involved, but that should be enough to convince you that it's at least possible for the sea to have different levels in different places.