Climate change is causing the sea to rise far faster than scientists once expected, a meter or more by 2100. Perhaps that doesn’t seem so dire to you. Perhaps you read that sentence and think: “Pity; there go some beaches and beach-front real estate.” Maybe you think: “You know, I’ve always liked the ocean more than New York City anyway…” If so, you may not be getting the picture, because a rise of just one meter will literally drown cities and towns across the globe, displacing millions of people, creating food shortages, epic political conflicts and disease epidemics.
It is not just the amount of overall rise that is of concern. That may well be the least concerning aspect. Storm surges will increase dramatically in strength if baseline sea level is higher. Hurricanes and typhoons have already increased significantly in strength and duration, an effect scientists attribute to climate change, and this is expected to continue. More than 10,000 people have been killed in storm surges in the Bay of Bengal alone in the last 300 years, and such surges could increase exponentially in the coming years. This means that the watery ends of Miami, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka are not just possible, but actually likely.
Their ends might come from the sea, something like this:
…or from the sky, like this:
(The already disappearing island of Kiribati is, of course, already f–ked.)
Even if we stabilize carbon emissions immediately—an impossible task given global political and economic forces—we will still see significant or even “catastrophic” sea-level rise for centuries to come.
Many people still consider the anthropogenic aspects of climate change to be merely theoretical, and regard dire climate change forecasts like those limned in this pithy blog post as alarmist, worst-case scenario scaremongering. (Among this group, you most likely can find a good number of people who believe in things like “intelligent” design and Norse origin mythology, too…)
But consider that all modern coastal development and industrialization have taken place under a period of temporary sea level stability, which would not likely have been maintained long term even without the anthropogenic effects of climate change accelerating sea level rise. During the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago, sea level was about 120 meters lower than today—and the average temperature then was only four to seven degrees Celsius colder! In the Pliocene era three million years ago (at least 2.5 millions years before homo sapiens even appeared) sea level was forty meters higher than today.
We, you see, are only blips in the deep-time soup of the planet.
Or maybe it would be better to say deep-time slime, because climate change—largely inevitable and natural, but quickened by human industrial activity—is not only making oceans higher and warmer, but also more acidic, a trend which could have sweeping ramifications. As the pH of the ocean drops, the calcium carbonate creatures that range from zooplankton to shellfish have a harder and harder time making their shells.
(If you’ve never considered the considerable beauty of zooplankton, click below to see a slideshow of images by Ernst Haeckel, many of which depict zooplankton called radiolaria):
There have already been significant reductions or changes in calcium carbonate creatures because of acidification, with effects resonating up the food chain. If this continues, scientists envision the oceans becoming more and more populated with jellyfish, algae and slimy, more genetically basic creatures—it has been called “the rise of slime.”
“There is one final impact that must be considered: acidification of the oceans. This results from carbon dioxide being absorbed into seawater. Already our oceans are 30 percent more acidic than they were thirty years ago, and creatures with shells are suffering. In recent years, there has been mass failure of oyster spawning off the American Northwest, and tiny snails in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans are having their shells eaten away by the acid. Jellyfish lack hard parts: they, it seems, will pull through the acidification crisis admirably.” – “They’re Taking Over!” a review of Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, The New York Review of Books.
So taking these trends to their most extreme long-term conclusion, we can envision our terrestrial world being swallowed up by epic storms and the slow-motion apocalyptic rise of ocean waters filled with primordial slime…as humans retreat and fight each other over increasingly scarce food and fresh water.
Kill your horror. After all, it’s only natural and very likely inevitable. Besides, as the always forward-thinking writer, William S. Burroughs once wrote, contemplating human mortality, mutation from that which we call human, and the possibility of space exploration: “We’re all here to go.”
—with reporting by Kari Lydersen.
—check out ThinkProgress: “Study: Sea Levels Rising 60% Faster Than Projected, Planet Keeps Warming As Expected.”