Take Two for August 1, 2013

Report: Climate change and California's rising sea levels

Severe Rain Storms Causes Flooding In Southern Los Angeles Area

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Cars make their way through the flooded north and southbound lanes of 710 Long Beach Freeway, the main artery to Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, on January 19, 2010 in Long Beach, California.

More Californians than ever say the state should take action immediately on climate change, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Many of those surveyed believe the effects of climate change are already here, with a quarter of Californians saying their biggest weather worry is flooding or rising seas. Scientists studying sea level rising are working hard to get the rest of society to pay more attention to the issue. 

KPCC's environmental reporter, Molly Peterson, shares a couple of new studies with Take Two.

Interview Q & A

Part of the perception problem of rising seas is that it's difficult to notice sea level changes. Do these studies help with that issue?

Yes and no. We can't solve the basic problem: sea levels don't behave like they do in disaster movies. Scientists measure sea level rise in a lot of ways - tidal gauges, sediment cores and satellite measurements. 

Another problem is that it's still hard to predict short-term sea level rise, which means with a century. One scientist in the area says it is much easier to know that a pile of ice in a warm room will melt than to know exactly how fast it will melt. The process is not always linear.

What are the two recent studies you found that explain why what's happening now is going to be an even bigger deal down the road?

The first study, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said that once greenhouse gas is put in the atmosphere, it hangs around for effectively forever. We know that carbon emissions raise the temperature a given amount and that sea levels will eventually adjust to that rise. 

International Energy Agency, which has 28 member nations including the U.S., figured in its most recent annual report that we're on track for a 3 degree Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century if we don't change. Emissions are like the water in the bathtub. We've got a weak drain, so the water leaving the tub is a smaller stream than the water coming in. 

The second study, from the nonprofit website Climate Central, blended the first study with elevation data and census population figures from the U.S.'s mainland coastlines. The scientist behind it made a tool on the website that shows how much sea level rise we've locked in already as well as the percentage of vulnerable coastal communities that would be put underwater.

Who's the most vulnerable, nationally and in California?

I wouldn't buy property in coastal Florida if I was you. It's low lying all the way around. On the current trend, Florida cities that are home to half a million people will be all the way underwater by the turn of the century. Nationally, we're talking about 18 million people in thousands of cities.

In California, we're not talking about just Malibu or Santa Monica. Big time sea level rise - the long term kind - would put at least a quarter of 85 California cities underwater at high tide. That includes Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Carson, Marina del Rey, and Seal Beach.

What would happen if we really clamped down greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible?

The deep cuts scenario is that if we could freeze global emissions growth by 2020, with that followed by rapid global emissions reductions  and a massive program to remove carbon from the atmosphere in net negative emissions, there could be atmospheric clean-up late in the century.

If it's like a disaster movie, it might be like Speed 2 - when Sandra Bullock is on a cruise ship that bashes into a port. Or Titanic. It's about trying to slow down something that's already happening, and advocates for action say it's something still worth doing. 


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