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Water Today Title   GREENING TRANSPORT   GREENING GOVERNMENT    HOLIDAY WATER    FIRST NATIONS August 23, 2017

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SEA LEVEL RISE & CRISIS MANAGEMENT

An interview with Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist, Climate & Land Use Change, USGS.- 12/14/12
Co-author, Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios Report, 2012

Water Today
There have been many projections over the past years about Sea Level Rise (SLR). How does this report differ from the others? How sure are the agencies involved about the science behind these scenarios? And how much compromise was involved in getting all to agree?

Virginia Burkett
Our report includes scientific analyses of how ice sheets have responded in the geologic past to atmospheric warming and, as a result, it presents a broader and higher range of sea level rise than did the IPCC in 2007. Another difference is that we present scenarios of plausible future sea level change, rather than a set of projections with assigned probabilities.

The report reflects findings from new analyses about how ice sheets affect global sea level. Since the last IPCC projections were published in 2007, there has been a focus on understanding the potential contributions of ice sheets. This is very important because the contribution of ice sheets to sea level rise appears to be increasing and the rate of sea level rise globally is also accelerating. The models used by IPCC in 2007 could not simulate rapid ice sheet response to warming. Since 2007 scientists have developed "semi-empirical" approaches for estimating how ice sheets responded during past warming periods.

Coming to a consensus was a challenge because of the diversity of available literature and the different perspectives of each scientist. The consensus we arrived at was that we as a group have very high confidence (greater than 90% chance) in the range of scenarios presented in our report.

Water Today

The Report provides four scenarios for global sea level rises Sea Level Rise (SLR), ranging from at least 8 inches to at worse 2 metres (6.6ft) by 2100, with maximum ice sheet loss and glacial melting factored in. In view of the accelerated rate of Arctic melting reported lately, is the worse case scenario of 2 metres not the most likely?

Virginia Burkett
No, most of the recent literature has projections that fall within our intermediate range. (1.6 feet based on projected ocean warming to 3.9 feet based on projected ocean warming and recent ice sheet lost.) But there is no probability attached to any of the scenarios. The objective of this report was not to predict but to help people assess exposure and risk within a range of uncertainties in order to support decision-making.

Water Today

The report's cautiousness in presenting 4 scenarios based on projections not predictions has lead some to say that it is only "opinion". Why this approach?

Virginia Burkett
Faced with the uncertainties about future warming and how ice sheets will respond, it is not possible to predict a single, precise rate of sea level rise for the next 100 years. What we can say with confidence is that if current rates of warming and ice sheet loss continue, sea levels will rise by at least 8 inches and at most 2 metres. The aim of this report is to present sea level rise scenarios in a framework that can help people assess risk associated with sea level rise.

The term 'scenarios' describes qualitative and quantitative information about different aspects of future environmental change to investigate the potential consequences for society. Scenarios do not predict future changes, but describe future potential conditions in a manner that supports decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Our scenarios can be used to develop and test decisions under a variety of plausible futures.

Water Today

Sea Level Rise (SLR) is a global trend but local conditions influence the rate of sea level rise and coastal erosion? Which are the major ones?

Virginia Burkett
Vertical land movement, the uplift or subsidence of the land surface is a significant factor. The Earth crust is still rising in response to earlier subsidence under the weight of the ice during the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago. In this context, coastal subsidence increases the relative Sea Level Rise (SLR) rate in the Mississippi River Delta, whereas some coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest have a lower rate of relative sea level rise because of land uplift.

Water Today

How much cooperation do you expect from regional and local stakeholders? Do they have the will and resources to work within the parameters of these scenarios?

Virginia Burkett
The report was written in response to demand. Managers in low-lying coastal areas around the world have asked for scenarios to help them make decision regarding land-use planning. The report provides them with a set of tools to analyze vulnerabilities and impacts as well as a range of options to choose from based on the amount of risk they want to take. Building a nuclear plant in a coastal area involves a higher degree of risk than a bridge with a 50-year lifespan or a beach nourishment project to help plant growth or endangered species.

Water Today

Had the report been released a few years ago, would it have helped New York City respond to Sandy?

Virginia Burkett
Not really since the report is based on published literature. I do think however that it might have helped in such areas as the redesigning of subway entrances.

Water Today

The cost of damages in the aftermath of Sandy is estimated to be some $50 Billion. We know that some areas on Long Island are still in tatters. In your opinion, should we rebuild or retreat to get out of harm's way?

Virginia Burkett
I am a scientist not a policymaker; it is not my job to make these kinds of decisions. What I can say is that my parents' home in Mississippi was destroyed by Katrina and after that home had been flooded for the second time, they moved inland. Retreat for them was a viable option.

Water Today

Is it possible to enlist the private sector in any preventive action? I say because I read in a DelawareOnline article about the NOAA Sea Level Rise (SLR) report that "one business group warned that 'there will be war' if DNREC (Department of Natural Resources and Economic Control) presses ahead with a proposal to make future sea-level rise a factor in land-use planning and on decisions governing wells and wastewater systems."

Virginia Burkett
This is no longer the norm. In my home state of Louisiana for example, Sea Level Rise (SLR) is now commonly factored into any land-use planning along the coast. Whereas, when I was a Louisiana Coastal Manager in the 1980s there was no talk of this. Nowadays, most land policy managers understand the uncertainties related to Sea Level Rise (SLR) and accept the concept of adaptation.

Water Today

I have heard about the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast(CCRUN) because of Sandy, is this a unique initiative or are there others in the US?

Virginia Burkett
There are numerous such initiatives across the US, national, regional and local. There is a Climate Change consortium of Private Sector Officers as well.

Water Today

Deniers were having a field day Wednesday (12/12/12) about the latest NOAA sea level budget which they claim states that global sea levels rose at only 1.1 - 1.3 mm/year from 2005-2012, which is less than half of the rate claimed by the IPCC [3.1 mm/yr] and is equivalent to less than 5 inches per century. What is your reaction?

Virginia Burkett
I am not aware of this report. But what I can say is that the time span of seven years is far too short to be significant. Sea Level Rise (SLR) is not a smooth linear phenomenon, it happens in fits and starts based on what we see in the geologic record of the past million years.

Water Today

One last question, do you think that no matter how many scientific reports are published on warming and sea level rise, it will always come down to crisis management in the end?

Virginia Burkett
We are already in crisis management on some low lying coasts that have been impacted by recent storms. I think the combination of science, observation and experience can help people prepare for and adapt to coastal change.

NOTE: This interview was reviewed by Virginia Burkett to ensure the accuracy of the scientific information.


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