The Water Will Come: A Must-Read Book on Sea Level Rise

December 20, 2017, 10:09 AM EST

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World—the title of Jeff Goodell’s new must-read book on sea level rise—says volumes. Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of the excellent 2011 book How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, argues that there is little we can do to stop the inexorable rise of the world’s oceans due to human-caused global warming--though we may be able to slow the rate of sea level rise later in the century. As one of the experts he interviews puts it, “Sea-level rise is like aging. You can’t stop it. You can only do it better or worse.”

Goodell argues that if we want to minimize the impact of sea level rise in the next century, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and move to higher ground. Strong immediate action to implement the Paris Climate Accord of 2015--and to go well beyond those targets, so that we eliminate all burning of coal, oil and natural gas by 2050--might limit sea level rise by 2100 to 2 – 3 feet, instead of 6 – 8 feet. “We would will need to retreat from the low-lying coastlines, but instead of a stampede, it could be a leisurely stroll,” he writes.

Goodell is an excellent journalist, and his treatment of a highly technical subject like sea level rise is both highly readable and informative. He relies on story-telling and interviews with a wide range of scientists, developers, civic leaders and politicians involved in the sea level rise issue. He spent several years researching the book, and relates stories from the extensive time he spent in many areas of the world highly vulnerable to sea level rise, including Miami, New York City, New Jersey, Norfolk, Alaska, the Netherlands, Venice (Italy), and Lagos (Nigeria.) He also describes fascinating stories from his trip to the source of about 25% of current global sea level rise—the Greenland Ice Sheet—as well his trip to the Paris Climate Accord.

Miami flooding
Figure 1. Water flows out of the Miami River to flood a walkway as Hurricane Irma passes through on September 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Miami

Goodell devotes three of the twelve chapters of the book to Miami and Miami Beach, which have the most to lose financially from sea level rise of anyplace in the world. He documents the tremendous vulnerabilities of the region—a huge population living close to sea level on porous bedrock that sea walls cannot protect, in a region prone to the highest incidence of hurricanes in the continental U.S. His stories of Miami Beach are particularly compelling. Miami Beach is a barrier island connected to the mainland by three bridges, and only one and a half feet of sea level rise will cut access to the island via these bridges. Large areas of the city flood each year during the annual “king tides” of October. During the king tides of 2015, Henry Briceño, a geologist with Florida International University, tested the flood water at four sites, and found them all to be contaminated by human fecal bacteria, caused by the flood water coming in contact with corroded or cracked sewer lines. In two cases, the levels were more than 600 times the state limit. When Briceño presented his findings to the city in 2015, the city ignored the report for nearly a year—until the Miami Herald got wind of it, and published the results. Mayor Philip Levine--a former cruise ship entrepreneur and real estate developer--accused the paper of running the story “in order to sell ads”, and the city attorney demanded the paper retract the article. The Herald declined.

Goodell does give credit to the city for taking aggressive action to take action on sea level rise, though, thanks to chief engineer Bruce Mowry and Mayor Levine. After being elected in 2013, Mayor Levine helped push through a $100 million bond issue to help buy pumps, elevate streets and install one-way check valves to limit king tide flooding. These actions have helped reduce king tide flooding in recent years, though heavy rains during the 2016 king tides overwhelmed the system for a few hours, bringing car-wheel-deep flooding (“nature’s preview of the disaster film to come”, writes Goodell.)

At a cocktail hour after a conference on the Economic Impact of Sea Level Rise in Miami, Goodell talked to a real estate broker about whether real estate brokers should be required to disclose flood risks related to sea-level rise. “That would be idiotic,” she told me, gulping down a gin and tonic. “It would just kill the market.”

Venice flooding
Figure 2. Scuba diver Nicola Brischigiaro poses on the flooded St Mark's Square in Venice on December 3, 2010, when the 'acqua alta' (high water) reached the highest level of the year, leaving 55 percent of the city under water. Shortly before dawn, sirens rang out across the city to warn inhabitants that the water level had risen above 1.10 meters (3.6 feet). Later in the morning, the level had risen to 1.40 meters above sea level. Image credit: Marco Sabadin/AFP/Getty Images.

Venice

Venice, Italy suffered a catastrophic flood in 1966, and it has taken more than 50 years to settle on a plan to protect the city, then get it approved, funded, designed, and partially built. Goodell visits Venice to learn about MOSE, a $6 billion barrier system designed to block storm surges, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Under its current design, it can protect Venice only until sea level rise reaches two feet, which could be as early as 2050.

NYC plan
Figure 3. Artist’s conception of The East Side Coastal Resiliency Project along the east side of Manhattan in New York City, part of a $3 billion barrier system informally called the “Big U”, designed to protect lower Manhattan from storm surges. The project is scheduled to break ground in 2019 and finish in 2024. Image credit: City of New York.

New York City

New York City is a sea level rise hot spot, with sea levels rising there 50% faster than the global average, due to subsidence of the ground and ocean current dynamics. With 72,000 buildings worth over $129 billion currently standing in flood zones, it is good that The Big Apple is one of the most proactive cities in the world when it comes to sea level rise adaptation. In response to the $19 billion in flood damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City is scheduled to break ground in 2019 on a $750 million, ten-foot high flood wall along the east side of Manhattan, part of a $3 billion barrier system informally called the “Big U”, designed to protect lower Manhattan from storm surges. Still, the city gets some criticism in Goodell’s book: there is continued development of waterfront property in Manhattan, and LaGuardia Airport, whose runways flood during major storm surge events, is scheduled to receive a $4 billion renovation.

Nuclear waste site
Figure 4. Picture taken by the U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency in 1980 shows the dome on Runit Island in Enewetak in the Marshall Islands that encases 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left over after the nuclear tests of the 1940s and 50s. Image credit: AFP/Getty Images.

Small Pacific islands

The Marshall Islands, which were subjected to 43 atomic bomb tests in the 1940s and 1950s, have a concrete bunker which sits right at sea level where the U.S. military buried 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris left over after the nuclear tests. The bunker is already cracked, and will be submerged as sea levels rise, creating a radioactive hazard. Most of the Marshall Islands are less than six feet in elevation, and will see a large exodus of climate change refugees as the seas rise, swamp their islands, and contaminate their drinking water with salt water. Goodell relates that during the Paris Climate Accord summit, the issue of climate change refugees was so politically explosive that it was hardly discussed.

Lagos flooding
Figure 5. Residents walk on makeshift narrow footpath leading to their flooded home at Ajegunle, Ikorodu Road, in Lagos on October 6, 2010. More than 130,000 people had been displaced by flooding when a spillway from the Goronyo dam burst from heavy rains, sweeping through the villages. Image credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images.

Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria, is near the top of the list of cities that will see the largest number of climate change refugees displaced by rising seas. By 2050, the population of the city is expected to be 30 million, and various studies have put the number of sea-level rise refugees in Lagos at three to eight million. Lagos has pioneered the development of a floating school, but the city is ill-prepared to deal with the mass exodus of the poor that will occurs as the seas rise. Goodell’s most heart-wrenching stories of the book concern his visit to the slum dwellers of Lagos who live in shacks being drowned by the rising seas.

Norfolk flooding
Figure 6. The hours per year from 1928 – 2015 that sea level was 1 and 2 feet above the high tide mark (mean higher high water, called MHHW) at the Sewells Point, Virginia NOAA water level gauge. Because of the very low topography of these coastal areas, a small rise in sea level results in many additional hours of flooding. Image credit: Dr. Larry Atkinson, Slover Professor of Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Norfolk, Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia has the biggest Navy base in the world, home to 75,000 sailors and civilians. However, sea levels are rising at double the global average along the Virginia coast, and all it takes to flood the base’s roads and make entry gates impassable is a rainstorm during a large high tide. Several years ago, Secretary of State John Kerry asked naval officers at the base about the life expectancy of the base, and got this response: “Twenty to fifty years,” Captain J. Pat Rios told him. Goodell comments, “It was an extraordinary moment in the annals of American military history: A US naval officer had just told the secretary of state that this enormous naval base, home to six aircraft carriers and key to operations in Europe and the Middle East, would be essentially inoperable in as little as twenty years. Yes, they could raise roads. But without the massive influx of billions of dollars to fortify and elevate the city Norfolk, as well as the roads and railroads that connect it to the surrounding region, the base was in big trouble.” Unfortunately, Goodell adds, “Virginia’s Republican-dominated legislature has effectively banned the discussion of climate change. One legislator called sea-level rise a ‘left-wing term’. Instead, the politically acceptable phrase in Virginia is ‘recurrent flooding’”.

Surprisingly, the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that sets policy for the US military for the coming fiscal year, was signed by President Trump on December 13, and contains extensive language on the threat climate change poses to the military and national security. The bill notes that “A three-foot rise in sea levels will threaten the operations of more than 128 United States military sites, and it is possible that many of these at-risk bases could be submerged in the coming years.”

Conclusion

Through its terrific storytelling interwoven with a wealth of scientific information on sea level rise, The Water Will Come impressed me as the best book I’ve read on climate change. While I’ve intellectually understood that sea-level rise will cause massive upheavals to civilization in coming decades, this book really communicated the enormity of the challenges society will face from the unstoppable rise of the ocean (for you sci-fi fans, I submit that we have a Seldon Crisis on our hands!) The main take-away message from the book is this: we can retreat from the coast and protect what we can in an intelligent and orderly fashion, or we can go through a chaotic abandonment of the coast forced upon us at much greater cost. Goodell is pessimistic about our prospects of doing an orderly retreat from the sea, writing, “retreat also requires city and state officials to willingly shrink their tax base and politicians to willingly give up power. Who wants that?”

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell is $17.63 from Amazon.com. I give it four stars out of four.

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

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Dr. Jeff Masters

Dr. Jeff Masters co-founded Weather Underground in 1995, and flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

jeff.masters@weather.com

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