Since the night of Nov. 8, the nation’s new president-elect has been grappling with the very serious and weighty demands of running the greatest and most consequential nation on earth. His is a tall task indeed. Imagine, however, the predicament and pressures of a president who is currently trying to preserve the actual physical existence of the land they’ve recently been elected to govern. This president’s country is disappearing — literally.
Hilda Heine was elected president of the Marshall Islands earlier this year. She is the first female leader of any Pacific Island nation, but has had little time to revel in her accomplishment.
The five islands and 29 atolls that make up the Marshall Islands, land which saw intense fighting during World War II, is now under attack — not by a foreign invader, but by nature itself. The sea, the very waters that surround the Marshallese people, is the assaulting enemy threatening to literally wipe the island nation off the map.
Sea level rise is leading to parts of President Heine’s territory being claimed by the Pacific Ocean. Those parts that aren’t being threatened and overtaken have been wracked by flooding, while some areas have been decimated by intense drought.
The Marshallese are not alone. The Pacific Island nations of Palau and Kiribati, and others, are also under threat.
Anxiety and fretting over future sustainability are not just acute concerns borne by those half a world away, they also exist much closer to home. Referring to the land south of New Orleans, which serves as a protective barrier against storm surges for the city, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently observed they’ve lost land equivalent to the size of the state of Delaware.
With the Gulf of Mexico claiming a football field-sized piece of land every 45 minutes in south Louisiana, he sees sea level rise as an imminent threat to the city’s longevity. Landrieu stated rather emphatically, “There is no greater threat to the future of south Louisiana than coastal erosion, and if it ain’t there no more … you can’t put up hospitals, build roads, build playgrounds … you’re not going to have a place to work, not going to have a place to live. You cease to exist.”
The main driver in this slow, steady rise in global sea levels is a changing climate.
When I queried Dr. Ronald Kiene of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab about this subject, he observed that we’re not in danger of the sea flooding everything along the Gulf Coast, but because global warming is real, within the next 50 years sea level rise will be significant enough that “there will be regular flooding of some coastal structures.”
He emphasized that “the important thing is that the rising water will erode the beaches, marshes and make them more susceptible to flooding events driven by storms and exceptionally high tides. All those things will force development to retreat further inland, or it will cost lots and lots of money to fight off the rising sea.”
Kiene used Dauphin Island as an example. The west end of Dauphin Island is “eroding significantly.” He noted how in January of this year, with a price tag of close to $7 million, a huge amount of sand was placed onto the beach at the east end of Dauphin Island. It’s not even a year later, and already a large fraction of that sand has eroded off the beach. According to Kiene, “It is inevitable that this will continue as the sea rises.”
In various communities on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, “the sea,” as one observer put it, “has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.” Referred to as “sunny-day flooding,” places such as Miami Beach are gearing up to spend around $400 million to install pumps, elevate sea walls and raise streets in order to keep the creeping water out.
Climate change is not something many like to talk about, but the effects of recent and current sea-level rise, which are quite evident, will force many coastal communities to confront the issue whether they want to or not. Mayor Landrieu rather plainly observed, “I know that it’s sacrilege to say the words ‘climate change’ in Louisiana, but you know what? The climate’s changing and human actions are contributing to it. That is a scientific fact. As soon as we face that in Louisiana, the more thoughtful we’re going to be about how to fix it.”
Kiene stated, “I always emphasize that climate change is not the end of the world, but is something that should be of concern to citizens now.” Sea level rise, heavier flooding, more frequent and intense hurricanes, more pronounced and prolonged droughts, a basic intensification of weather and climate extremes will become the norm as our climate continues to change.
“To the climate-change skeptics out there, I ask: Do you trust hurricane predictions nowadays?” said Kiene. “The climate models that predict hurricane intensities and tracks are incredibly good and help to save lives and infrastructure by letting people prepare. I think most will agree with that statement. Well, the same quality of scientists and climate models are making the confident predictions about advancing global warming and sea-level rise.”
For those of us living on the coast, denial is not a particularly prudent option. The tide is rising.