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When Global Warming Hits Home (Literally)

Peter Lehner

Posted May 11, 2012

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Click here to take action In a recent PBS documentary, the mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, Paul Fraim, talks about how flooding has become a monthly occurrence in his town, and how global warming and sea level rise are as much a daily issue for him as education and fighting crime. In some parts of Norfolk, streets turn into rivers at high tide. Homes are flooded five out of six years. People lose their carpets, their appliances, their savings. And they can't afford to move elsewhere.

Sea levels have risen 14 inches in Norfolk since 1930--almost double the global rate. Part of this alarming change is due to the natural sinking of the area's soggy tidal lands, but part of it is due to the rising sea levels brought about by global warming. Like stranded polar bears in the North Pole, like disappearing island nations in the Pacific, waterlogged Norfolk is yet another symbol of global warming at work. And even though Norfolk is within spitting distance of our nation's capital, Congress still hasn't seemed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Turning a blind eye to the realities of global warming is a dangerous game. Scientists predict that sea levels will rise anywhere from 7 inches to 78 inches in the next 100 years (depending, in part, on how much we do to curb global warming pollution), which means that in a few generations, nearly five million people who currently live within 4 feet of high tide could be in the same boat as the residents of Norfolk.

New research shows that global warming will double the chance of a hundred-year flood occurring in many locations within the next 18 years. In some areas, the chance is tripled.


Nearly half the states in the nation will be affected by rising sea levels. Despite these odds, for the most part, we are financially, structurally, and administratively unprepared to deal with the most immediate consequences of global warming.

Bailing out after a flood is a major expense not only for swamped cities, but for taxpayers all over the country. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spent more than $100,000 per home in Norfolk to raise residences above expected water levels. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), run by FEMA, is nearly $18 billion in debt, and has had to borrow money from the Treasury to stay afloat.

Part of the problem is that federal insurance coverage is based on maps which only take historical data into account, and make no predictions about future flooding. This is senseless: we know perfectly well we're looking at a future unlike anything we've seen in the past. So-called "century" floods are practically a yearly occurrence in some areas. Frequent, furious storms and higher seas are the new normal. The Norfolk-Virginia Beach area ranks 10th in the world for assets most at risk due to rising sea levels. Miami ranks first.

Private insurers have a pretty good idea of what the future will hold--they've basically gotten out of the market for disaster coverage in high-risk flood areas, making federal insurance the only option. The U.S. Navy knows the score, too: they've commissioned a study to find out how global warming will affect their activities in Norfolk, where it runs the largest naval base in the world, home to the U.S. Atlantic fleet and 54,000 active duty personnel. Researchers are modeling how rising sea levels and more frequent, intense storms might affect naval operations and facilities, possibly delaying performance for hours or resulting in, as the military says, "mission impairment."

Some states are doing their part to prepare for the reality of sea level rise. California has a comprehensive climate adaptation plan, which includes directives for state agencies to assess and reduce the risks of sea level rise to construction projects in flood-risk areas. Massachusetts is working to conserve and restore critical wetlands and buffer zones to enhance natural flood protection. Pennsylvania, even though it's not on the coast, faces threats to its water supply from saltwater intrusion into the Delaware River. The state is turning to green infrastructure to improve water quality, using features like green roofs and rain gardens to absorb excess stormwater and reduce the flow of sediment and pollution into waterways.  

It's Congress that seems unable to confront the reality of global warming, a head-in-the-sand approach that puts our property, our health, and our money at risk. The NFIP, by providing insurance coverage for buildings in flood-prone areas, is actually encouraging development where, practically speaking, there should be none. The program should focus on incentives that will help homeowners prepare their homes to better withstand flooding, saving lives and lowering the cost of rebuilding. Studies estimate that prevention and mitigation strategies save $4 dollars for every dollar spent. The intention of the program was to help people in need, and it should continue to do so. But basing coverage on inaccurate, unscientific maps doesn't do anyone any favors. It's misleading to homeowners and all taxpayers who share the burden of the costs of flooding.

Ignoring the threat of rising seas leaves too many people in harms' way. We need to step up efforts to reduce global warming pollution, and make plans to ensure that our homes, our businesses, and our health are protected. This is where the government needs to play its role as defender of the public interest, and start seriously examining the consequences of global warming.

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BSMay 11 2012 12:00 PM

Global sea levels have risen about 8 inches in the last 100yrs or about 6.5 inches since 1930. Of that 6.5 inches, only a portion is due to global warming.

So you write a global warming story about a 14 inch increase in sea levels, and likely at least 75% of that increase has not been caused by global warming.

Also, sea levels have risen at a steady rate since about 1900. In other words, exponential increases in greenhouse gas emissions have not increased the rate of sea level rise.

Sea levels have actually been rising for the past 20,000 years. The increase in sea levels began to level off about 8,000 years ago and the rate of increase in sea levels has actually steadily declined ever since then. In other words, the long-term trend in sea level rise is trending toward zero with no indication that global warming has altered that in any significant manner.
Just want to make sure the whole story is told.

LHMay 11 2012 02:06 PM

Actually BS, sea level is rising, and at increasing rates, specifically because of manmade global warming.

You're obviously a skeptic for whom no amount of factual information is going to be good enough, so I'm not going to waste too much time here. But for peer reviewed literature showing you're wrong, a good starting point would be:

But I would love to see the peer reviewed studies to support your claims that "only a portion is due to global warming" and "75% of that increase has not been caused by global warming". Also for the steady rate since 1900.

Whether sea levels have been rising for 20,000 years is irrelevant to the fact that they are rising right now due to human causes.

BSMay 11 2012 07:54 PM

"But I would love to see the peer reviewed studies to support your claims that "only a portion is due to global warming" and "75% of that increase has not been caused by global warming"."

Seriously? It's algebra. 14 inches of rise, minus about 6.5 inches of actual sea level rise leaves 7.5 inches (54%) of land sinking that has nothing to do with sea levels. And sea levels have been rising for 20,000 years due to melting of glaciers after the end of the ice age. You can find this data fairly easily.

And also, the link that YOU provided has a graph of sea levels. If you ignore the blue curve which is meaningless and look at the data from about 1910 or 1920 onward, you see a steady rise. I would invite you to find a graph of sea levels going back 20,000 years and let me know what you see with the longer term trends.

The data that YOU linked to supports what I said.

Also, the main problem with climate science is that the models are not accurate. The link you posted claims that because models can accurately predict historical temperatures they are accurate. The models were tuned to match historical temperatures, so of course they match. What the models don't do is accurately predict future temperatures. If you don't believe me, go look at the 1990 IPCC predictions and compare predicted warming to actual warming over the past 22yrs. Please report back and let me know if they were even close.

JonMay 12 2012 06:44 AM

BS, your name fits. I see much opinion but little science.

BSMay 12 2012 10:21 AM


So put me in my place, then. Last person who tried said my arguments were "easily torpedoed". And then he couldn't torpedo them.

Do you want to give it a try?

Note, I have not claimed that the planet hasn't been in long-term warming trend, I haven't claimed that the planet is cooling, and I haven't even claimed CO2 emissions don't affect the climate. But I have said the models are not accurate which indicates that CO2 does not impact temperatures as much as claimed.

LHMay 14 2012 09:23 AM

Of course you haven't claimed CO2 has no effect; you're in the 3rd or 4th stage of denial by now. You know you'd be laughed out of the room if you said that, so now you've moved on to admitting it's happening but downplaying the effects.

Since reading comprehension (and math) clearly aren't your strong suits, let me quote the site I linked to, plus my earlier post:

First me, with respect to a sea level graph going back 20,000 yrs:
"Whether sea levels have been rising for 20,000 years is irrelevant to the fact that they are rising right now due to human causes."

Just like the presence of a medieval warming period (which wasn't even as warm as today) neither proves nor refutes the fact that CO2 emissions are driving global warming now.

Now the site:
"Skeptics argue that we should wait till climate models are completely certain before we act on reducing CO2 emissions. If we waited for 100% certainty, we would never act. Models are in a constant state of development to include more processes, rely on fewer approximations and increase their resolution as computer power develops. The complex and non-linear nature of climate means there will always be a process of refinement and improvement. The main point is we now know enough to act. Models have evolved to the point where they successfully predict long-term trends and are now developing the ability to predict more chaotic, short-term changes."

But by all means, continue to use a 22 year old report (using studies that are even older) as your evidence, simply because they didn't predict to the tenth of a degree the exact amount of warming.

"Current sea level rise is after all not exaggerated, in fact the opposite case is more plausible. Observational data and changing conditions in such places as Greenland suggest if there's a real problem here it's underestimation of future sea level rise. The IPCC synthesis reports offer conservative projections of sea level increase based on assumptions about future behavior of ice sheets and glaciers, leading to estimates of sea level roughly following a linear upward trend mimicking that of recent decades. In point of fact, observed sea level rise is already above IPCC projections and strongly hints at acceleration"

And on and on and on, but I'm not going to quote every single piece that refutes you.

And as for your math skills, subtracting the global rise of 6.5" from the local 14" change is just wrong. Turns out the Earth is pretty large, and there's a lot of water. The 6.5" is a global average; it doesn't mean every single location, such as Norfolk, has experienced that exact amount. The author recognizes that not all 14" are due to rising sea levels, but in no way is it correct to simply subtract the global average from the local observed and imply that the difference is due to land sinking.

BSMay 14 2012 11:50 AM

LH--If you'd like to kindly restate your comments such that they are in-line with the site's code of conduct (i.e. no rude behavior), we can discuss further.

Also, given the limitations of this method of communication, it would be helpful to discuss only one issue at a time. Please start with the climate models and then move on to sea levels or something else.

BSMay 14 2012 10:06 PM

LH--Do you want to have an honest discussion on this topic or not? I'm willing if you are.

LHMay 15 2012 01:06 PM

No, because I have nothing to gain and I've already laid out everything I needed to say. Your comments so far are either

A. thoroughly refuted by the weight of the evidence in peer-reviewed literature, or

B. irrelevant to the sea level increases driven by man made global warming

I'm not a scientist and don't have all the answers, so any further discussion would most likely be you posting something obscure and me having to waste time trying to track down the appropriate material to debunk your claims.

You're obviously free to post anything else you want on these issues (sea level rise and models), but this will be the last one for me.

BSMay 16 2012 08:49 AM

The only sources I've referenced have been the NASA temperature records, the UAH temperature records, the IPCC, and sea level data from sources such as NOAA and the University of Colorado. Which of these sources do you consider obscure?

You claim that sea levels have been rising at "increasing rates"

Here is one of my "obsucre sources" (i.e. a major public university):

Here is another "obscure source" (i.e. the IPCC):

As you can see, global sea rise has been essentially linear. There was a slope change back around 1920. But the rate of sea level rise from 1925-1950 was actually higher than the rate of increase from 1950-present.

There is absolutely ZERO corellation between the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and the rate of sea level increase. Would you like me to post more "obscure" data?

With respect to models, of course we cannot wait for them to be proven accurate before taking action. Personally, I hate wasting energy for a number of reasons, and I strongly support conservation.

I do understand that the sea level rise is varies by location. However, it is still a fact that the 14" rise in Norfolk is due primarily to the sinking ground and the diminishing sea level rise caused by the end of the ice age 20,000 years ago. I'm sure some small portion of it is due to mankind's affect on the planet as well.

However, when models consistenly over-predict the rate of warming, this makes it pretty clear that at a minimum, we have more time to solve the global warming crisis than first though.

And quite frankly, anyone who believes global warming is man-made should rejoice at this prospect. I mean, if you were trying to disarm a bomb, wouldn't you rather have 30 minutes on the clock instead of 10 minutes? But instead, people fall all over themselves trying to downplay this fact, or more frequently, they just ignore it all together.

I'm still willing to have a respectful discussion if you are. I've used mainstream data to make my point. You've used no data at all and have simply cut-and-pasted statements from other websites.

Comments are closed for this post.


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