Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023


With the insane weather we've had this summer -- and which is showing no signs of calming down -- it's easy to forget about another inevitable outcome of anthropogenic climate change: sea level rise.

Part of the issue, of course, is that humans have a regrettable tendency only to pay attention to what's right in front of their faces, like the current worldwide extreme heat wave.  It's why researchers found in 2014 that public concern about climate change decreases during the winter, an attitude Stephen Colbert summed up as "I just had dinner, so there's no such thing as world hunger."

And sea level rise is so gradual you really do have to have a long baseline even to notice it.  It's only in extremely low-lying places like Louisiana's Isle de Jean-Charles that people have been forced to notice -- and that only because the place looks very likely to cease to exist entirely in the next ten years.

Another reason the (well justified) panic over climate change has mostly focused on extreme high temperatures on land and hot sea surfaces fueling bigger storms is that climatologists thought we had something of a buffer, ice-melt-wise, in the Greenland Ice Sheet.  The Greenland Ice Sheet, they thought, had been unmelted for millions of years, which not only kept all that water locked up in solid form on land, but also helped stabilize the Arctic climate.

Note my use of the past tense.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, Greenland Glaciers outside of Ammassalik (5562580093), CC BY 2.0]

New research, based on an ice core that had been collected in the 1960s but then lost for nearly sixty years, showed something terrifying: four hundred thousand years ago, nearly the entire Greenland Ice Sheet melted, raising the sea level by several meters -- at a time when the carbon dioxide concentration was lower than it is today.  Using something called a luminescence signal -- a highly-sensitive technique that measures the last time flakes of feldspar or quartz were exposed to light, and therefore were on the surface -- the researchers found what they are calling "bulletproof" evidence that layers thought to be continuously buried deep in the Greenland ice were exposed between 420,000 and 370,000 years ago.

If this happened today -- and the indications are that if we don't curb climate change fast, it will -- the results will be nothing short of catastrophic.

"If we melt just portions of the Greenland ice sheet, the sea level rises dramatically," said Tammy Rittenour, climatologist at Utah State University.  "Forward modeling the rates of melt, and the response to high carbon dioxide, we are looking at meters of sea level rise, probably tens of meters.  And then look at the elevation of New York City, Boston, Miami, Amsterdam. Look at India and Africa -- most global population centers are near sea level."

Considering that the average elevation of the state of Delaware is twenty meters -- and that Louisiana and Florida tie at thirty-three meters -- this should scare the absolute shit out of everyone.  (And like Rittenour said -- even in those low-elevation states, most of the population is still along the coast -- so even a meter or two rise would be catastrophic.)

And, typical of privileged people in industrialized countries, I've focused on where I live.  If you look at the top ten cities threatened by climate change, only one (Miami, Florida) is in the United States.  Two are in India (Kolkata and Mumbai), two are in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City and Hai Phong), two are in China (Guangzhou and Shanghai), and one each in Bangladesh (Dhaka), Myanmar (Rangoon), and Thailand (Bangkok).  Just counting the urban population of these ten cities puts almost seventeen million people with the choice of relocating or drowning.

You think the refugee problem is bad now?  

And I'm not just talking about the dreaded "caravans of foreign refugees" the right-wingers here in the U.S. like to bring out every time there's focus on the fact that their entire platform lately has consisted of denying rights to people they don't like.  If the sea level rises even by a meter or two, every coastal city in the United States is in trouble -- so we're gonna have an internal refugee problem the likes of which we've never seen before.

People, we have got to figure this out.

We've had enough time to process it all, to come to the conclusion that yes, it's real, and no, it's not a "natural warm-up."  I'll end with a quote from British science historian James Burke's brilliant (and prescient) documentary After the Warming, which aired all the way back in 1989: "People spend money to insure their homes, their health, and their lives against far less likely occurrences.  That's all legislation to stop climate change turns out to be: planetary insurance...  Our attitude thus far has been like the guy in the old joke, have you heard it?  A man falls off the top of a twenty-story building, and someone on the seventeenth floor sticks his head out of the window and asks the guy how he's doing.  The man shrugs as he falls and says, 'So far, so good.'"


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