The devastation caused in Texas and Louisiana by Hurricane Harvey may be the first in a series of increasingly terrifying events affecting coastal communities, from Mumbai to Margate, argues Mark Piesing.
For this piece, I interview Jeff Goodell, environment journalist and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, about his new book When The Waters Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. I also talk to Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at UCL, to discover why the dream of retiring to live by the coast in the UK might be over.
The recovery and clean-up operation has barely begun, and more rain and thunderstorms are still on their way. But after an unprecedented downpour which flooded homes and saturated streets, turning roads into rivers and lashing down on the 6.6m population of Houston, the devastation spread. Bowling alleys, churches, school buildings and conference centres were turned into emergency shelters for the 32,000 who had fled their homes. As official reports still trickle through, it’s estimated 47 Houston citizens were left dead from the storm, 50,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed and 210,000 people have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance. The full cost of Hurricane Harvey – human and financial – is now becoming clear in the flooded homes and saturated streets of the Texan city.
According to Jeff Goodell, the author of upcoming book When the Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, Harvey is not an anomaly. Far from it. Our impact on the climate is being felt in an increasingly grand and frightening scale, making droughts, flooding and storms ever more severe and frequent.
The journalist, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, had written about climate change for more than 15 years and when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, his eyes opened to how the impact of global warming on rising sea levels might flood a coastal city. Then somebody told him that if he wanted to see a city in real trouble he should go to Miami, where two million people could be at risk from the rising sea. One day there was a king tide.
“I was walking knee-deep in water in the downtown areas of the city of Miami Beach – I could see what a disaster a sea-level rise will be. There are billions of dollars of infrastructure sitting there right by the beach. Then there’s the topography – about 70 per cent of Miami is less than 6ft (1.8m) above sea level.”
In Miami Beach, I could see what a disaster a sea-level rise would be
“In the US I have met people who are going to stay in their homes until the end, and others who are actually looking forward to it because where they live will be on the frontier. Some people are already leaving, before property prices get hit.”
“There is the geology as well. Miami is built on porous limestone, so the sea water just comes up through it. There is no way you can build sea walls in Miami and South Florida like you can in New York. Miami and Louisiana will lose the most population.”
“The big wild card is human psychology,” Goodell says. “Just how welcoming will the people be who live inland [to an influx of people]? I would have had a different answer for this in the Obama years than now… After Hurricane Katrina, many people relocated from Louisiana to Minnesota – and it went fine. However, a large influx of strangers in times like these is not a recipe for peace.”
Scientists agree that global warming is leading to a sea-level rise because of the water from melting ice sheets and the expansion of seawater as it warms. What they disagree on is by how much and how fast. According to Nasa, there has been an 84.4mm rise in the global average sea level since 1992 and it is currently rising at about 3.4mm every year. This rise does not seem to be much, but it is already enough to cause problems for low-lying countries such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.
By the end of the century, most predictions place the extent of sea level rise between 0.75 and 2 metres. It’s estimated that about 145 million people globally live three feet or less above the current sea level – and another 1 billion just above it. The expectations are that it will increase with the melting of the Western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.
Climate change expert Dr Lonnie Thompson has observed glacier shrinkage in the Andes, the Himalayas, and on Mount Kilimanjaro which shows an acceleration in global warming. In his 2010 research paper Climate Change: The Evidence and our Options, he writes that we can expect more flooding, storms and droughts and that urgent global action is required: “As a result of our inaction, we have three options: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.”
Some of the heaviest rainfall in India for over 15 years has flooded Nepal and Bangladesh in the past week. More than 1,200 people are feared dead and 40 million are estimated to have been affected by floods. With two extreme weather events – monsoons and a hurricane – occurring in different countries within the same week, it’s not difficult to see that this is an urgent global problem. The top 20 cities most at risk from disappearing beneath the waves by 2100 include Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Mumbai in India, and Katrina victim New Orleans. Reassuringly, no UK city makes this dystopian top 20. However, about 30 per cent of the population of England and Wales are estimated to live near to the coast. There is also a hefty £120bn of infrastructure sitting in this coastal zone as well.
“We have this arbitrary date we talk about – 2100 – but Mother Nature isn’t going to stop suddenly,” says Goodell. “Sea-level rise is due to carry on because the heat that has built up is going to continue for a very long time.” The speed at which the sea level rises will be critical for cities by the sea. “If we have 6ft of sea-level rise in the next 30 years, which would be unlikely, it would be a catastrophe. If we had a 6ft rise in the next hundred years that would be manageable. We can gradually adapt to it.”
There is evidence that about 12,000 years ago sea levels rose more than four metres in a single century to flood the land now under the North Sea. If this happens again, it will doom many cities.
Unfortunately, Goodell says, pouring concrete might not be the answer. “There is a fallacy out there that all you have to do is build higher – put your buildings on stilts – and it will be OK. But what about the infrastructure? As reports came through last week of two explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, it’s become abundantly clear that flooding is not just a problem of water damaging people’s homes but other aspects of infrastructure as well. There is not much point in having a $1m condo in Miami Beach high on stilts when the water around you is toxic because so many septic systems have flooded and the roads are under water.”
For coastal cities, the future will be grim if he is right. “People will soon start to think: why should we build new sewers, utilities and schools for communities at risk only for them to be abandoned the next decade? They are going to go ‘f**k it, let’s just leave’. There is no precedent for what nature has in store for us. I think there will be some interesting solutions. I have no doubt there will be new Venices built, but there is going to be a lot of chaos and violence as well.”
How will Britain be Affected: “It is the dream of many people to retire to the coast, but they probably shouldn’t.”
“The impact of the rise in sea levels depends on where you are in the UK,” says Mark Maslin, professor of climatology at UCL. “London is protected from a one in 1,000-year event and Hull from a one in 200-year event due to the relative size of its population and economic value.”
The Environment Agency has drawn up plans to protect London against a 4m (13ft) rise in sea level in the short term. This would mean retrofitting the Thames Barrier to cope with the higher sea level and improving the floodgates on the Essex and Kent Coast. The flat lands of Essex and the Kent coast would then be flooded to save London. It would be cheaper than repairing the damage to central London.
“If the water level goes up any higher, the next step would be for the EA to build a 13km long barrier further out.” On other parts of the coast, there will be managed retreat.
This involves encouraging farmers to flood their land to allow the creation of wetlands, Nature’s natural barrier,” he says. “The biggest problem in the short term is that storm surges will reach further inland.”
The rise in sea levels could spell the end of the dream of retiring to the coast. More than 50 Welsh villages already look like they will be left to their fate.
“If you live by the coast, the chances are that you won’t get much protection unless it’s a high-value tourist destination, has a large population or for some historical reason.
“It is the dream of many people to retire to the coast, but they probably shouldn’t.”
“There will be the migration of people away from estuaries like the Humber where sea level rise will have a major effect.”
The next century doesn’t bring respite either. “All bets are off because of the Western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets which are starting to melt.”
“There will be the migration of people away from estuaries like the Humber where sea level rise will have a major effect.” The next century doesn’t bring respite either.
“All bets are off because of the Western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets which are starting to melt.”