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When Chicago is Capital

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 7:11 PM GMT on July 11, 2016

When Chicago is Capital

One of my favorite questions to ask students on exams is about the Great Lakes region as a climate winner. Something like, you are a mayor in a midsize city on Lake Michigan. Over the last three decades your town has established itself as the poster child of the Rust Belt. After watching a scientist talk about climate change, you decide your city should be a climate winner. You have water, lots of water. And, well, you have never heard anyone complain about how hot it is in the winter or, really, the summer. How can you use climate change to rebuild your city?

As my reader will know, I have become a bit focused on our commitment to several feet of sea-level rise. Flying into Chicago earlier this year, seeing the city on the clear, ice-free lake, well, it will not be too long until we are talking about moving the U.S. capital. Or will we build the Potomac barrier? The Patuxent Barrier? The Patapsco Barrier? The Piscataway Barrier? The Pohick Barrier? What about the Point No Point Barrier?

I have written many articles on sea-level rise, starting, I think, with the one on Portchester Castle. This is a castle in the South of England (previously part of the U.K.?), which has been around since 200, or so, and its moat is filled and drained by tidal water. I also referenced in that blog a paper on the stabilization of sea-level rise and the emergence of cities.

I have been interested in the recent reporting of sea-level rise adaptation efforts. PRI, Public Radio International, has a very nice series, Living with Rising Seas. Despite the State of North Carolina’s efforts to limit sea-level rise by law, Norfolk, Virginia, just north of the North Carolina border, has been very aggressively taking on sea-level rise. One of the approaches that Norfolk is using is to adapt a new approach emerging in Holland. Rather than spending all effort on blocking the sea, there is a dynamic approach of living with, in some cases in, the sea.

It is expected that the Netherlands would be a country with climate change in its everyday thinking. The Netherlands is a wealthy country. Much of the country is below sea level, and parts have been claimed and built from the sea. Looking back, the Dutch have records of disastrous floods back to the 1400s. The Flood of 1953 led to major public works in strengthening dikes. The responses to these floods have been to think about how to manage the water better. They identify weakness and recognize failures, technological and political, as teaching how to improve their engineering and policy. The Dutch have been living with the sea, managing the sea, for centuries, and more than most, sea-level rise is an existential threat to the country.

Increasingly, the Dutch approach is to live with the water – not exclude the water. For a 1000 years the Dutch have been building dikes and pumping water, often with iconic windmills. Not only is there the direct threat of the sea, Holland is the Rhine Delta. There are changes in drought and flood, with predictions of major changes in the seasonal water flow. Sea level rise inhibits the flow of rivers, pushing flood risk deeper into the interior. Salt-water intrusion during droughts, likewise, moves to new territory.

Already the government is relocating people and farms in efforts to provide more area and channels to manage floodwaters. They are building enormous dikes, whose heights and widths are such that failure is unlikely. On tops of the dikes are small farms. Prior to 2050, the Government’s plans call for increasing the dikes height by a factor of 10. After 2050, there is a need for continual planning and building. There is judicious planning and use of barriers that can be opened and closed. When the recommendations were drawn up in 2008, they planned for up to 1.3 meters of sea-level rise by 2100, and up to 4 meters by 2200. There is a mentality of spending a billion dollars a year to prevent what are perceived as potential 700 billion dollar events is money well spent.

Increasingly, Dutch engineers are being called on as consultants. This is the case in Norfolk, which has made some effort at a regional approach to sea level rise. Given the general perception of Virginia, outside of Northern Virginia, as being politically conservative, it interests me that Norfolk, the Tidewater region, has one of the most progressive approaches to sea-level rise. I attribute this, conjecturally, to the strong presence of the U.S. military, military contractors, and, in particular, the unique resources of the U.S. Navy. There are plenty of cities with as much to lose as Norfolk, but few that seem to be bringing as strong and as integrated focus to sea level change.

Other cities in the U.S., such as Miami are taking, what appear, to be more piecewise measures to deal with the most immediate threats. Miami, along with other Florida mayors, is fighting entrenched anti-climate-change politics on the state level.

New York, which has one of the U.S.’s most advanced climate-change adaptation plans, is focused largely on hurricane Sandy recovery. It has an extensive analysis of assets and vulnerabilities, but on the surface, still seems focused on business as usual. That is, hardening buildings and infrastructure, as if incremental hardening will address the problem. They continue talking about the 100-year flood plain, whereas, in the Netherlands they are talking about the 10,000-year flood plain.

As for Washington, D.C., it seems to me that they just be planning to move.

While Holland has a history of the sea, weather, and climate being a conscious part of what the country does, even, the most progressive in the U.S. are slow to embrace this reality. I go back to one of my earlier entries: What frightens me more than the technological challenges or the cost of adaptation is the inability of governments and societies to take on new approaches to our valuation and use of resources, property, and services. I suspect that our motivations will ultimately follow from a series of increasingly costly weather disasters and the accumulation of smothering evidence of the impacts of a changing climate.

Many resources below.




The Guardian: The Dutch solution to floods: live with the water, don’t fight it

PRI: As sea levels rise, Rotterdam floats to the top as an example of how to live with water

Deltawerken: Information on water management in the Netherlands

Rotterdam Climate Initiative: Rotterdam Climate Proof started out at the end of 2008 and is currently in full swing as part of the Rotterdam Climate Initiative

Netherlands Government: Dutch National Measures on Climate Change

Netherlands Government: Climate Agenda: Resilient, Prosperous, and Green

European Climate Adaptation Platform

Norfolk and U.S. Cities:

PRI: Living with Rising Seas

PRI: In Norfolk, climate change means dealing with rising water. The Dutch are there to help

How one Virginia city is re-framing sea-level rise as an opportunity

Tidewater, Virginia: Life at Sea Level, Photographs and Maps


World Resources Institute: Sea-level rise and its impact on Miami-Dade County, Fact Sheet

PHYS.ORG: Sea level rise will swallow Miami, New Orleans

NPR: As Waters Rise, Miami Beach Builds Higher Streets And Political Willpower

WLRN: UM Climatologist: No Quick Fix For Sea Level Rise In South Florida

Miami Herald: South Florida’s mayors face reality of rising seas and climate change

Union of Concerned Scientists: The Truth about Florida’s Attempt to Censor Climate Change

San Francisco

San Francisco Curbed: $77 Billion of Property Sits In Sea Level-Rise Flood Zone

Sea Level Rise Committee: Guidance for incorporating sea level rise into capital planning in San Francisco

New York

Rolling Stone: Can New York Be Saved in the Era of Global Warming?

Education, Government Reports, Tools, Services

Washington Post: 10 things you should know about sea level rise and how bad it could be

CLIMATE.gov: Climate Change: Global Sea Level With an interactive graphic.

Koshland Science Museum: Oceans and Sea Level

National Research Council: Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future

Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment

NOAA: Sea Level Rise Viewer

Climate Central: Surging Seas

Climate Change Politics Climate Impacts and Risks Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.