The Scary New World of Uneven Sea Water Levels

By Peter Galuszka

Ten days later, New York City and parts of the New Jersey and New York coast are still reeling from Super Storm Sandy as yet another nor’easter packing 50 mile per hour winds approaches.

Scientific evidence points out that sea level rises caused by melting polar icecaps caused, in turn, by climate change, are part of the problem. One city that would suffer devastating floods had Sandy hit or a more typical Category Two or Three hurricane comes is Norfolk.

According to a NPR story,  there’s clear evidence that water levels are rising around Norfolk. Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University says one can tell by looking at the high water marks left on a decades-old sea wall that protects Norfolk’s downtown.  The high water brown mark is consistently going higher and during Hurricane Irene last year, the mark was over the top of the wall.

NPR says that one problem is that as icepacks melt because of global warming, the resulting seawater is not being distributed equally around the oceans. It’s like stirring water in a glass with a spoon. Water closest to the glass is higher than that in the center. Exchange the image of the spoon with swirling ocean currents and you get the idea.

For some reason, the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. from about North Carolina northwards is collecting more high water than parts of the coast to the south. It isn’t clear why, but it may explain why Sandy had such a wallop even though it started as a weak Category One hurricane, NPR says..

In Tidewater, another Sandy would be devastating to the Virginia economy and not just in terms of beach houses and tourism lost. Flooded might be Tidewater’s enormous drydocks at shipyards employing 20,000 or more people. The 4,000 people who work at NASA’s Langley Research Center wouldn’t be able to go to work if their homes are flooded even if the runways are protecting from rising waters.

This adds a dark new dimension to the argument about climate change and living in coastal areas. Some posts on Bacons Rebellion have dealt with the issue before and have (believe or not) acknowledged that sea levels are rising. This Bacons Rebellion post does just that but deals mostly with the issue of flood insurance and bad planning.

All true, but the new issue deals with long-term impacts on jobs that are inextricably linked to living near water, such as working at a shipyard, a port facility or a military or scientific installation. It’s a much bigger deal than summer fun in the sun and sand.

A solution could be a $1 billion seawall that might protect some of Norfolk’s neighborhoods. A similar seawall has been pitched around New York running across the mouth of the harbor and also near Hell Gate where the East River meets Long Island Sound. That cost is about $6 billion.

NPR says that a Dutch company has advised Norfolk about such a defense. That makes sense because The Netherlands has centuries of experience dealing with low-lying land.

But Norfolk simply doesn’t have the $1 billion and it’s doubtful New York does, either.

The issue is no longer one of merely complaining about building waterfront homes and insuring them. The new dynamics of ice floes melting and uneven water levels rising is giving the matter new urgency.

4 Responses to The Scary New World of Uneven Sea Water Levels

  1. Uh, if water gets into a shipyard dry dock during a storm, you just pump it out later. That’s how a dry dock works. Don’t lose sleep over the drydocks.
    The non-storm tidal levels haven’t quite reached the point for panic.

    You also fail to mention that one problem adding to the Hampton Roads area’s potential woes is that the area is sinking. Yes, there is evidence that mean water levels are rising and that means storm surges could be greater, but in some of the most threatened areas, that’s not all that is going on. New Orleans and parts of the Netherlands have always been below mean sea level. But Sandy was a wake-up call for everybody on the coast who figures the odds protect them. That part of the US had not been hit like that for decades. But it has been hit like that before, surely.

  2. here’s something that struck me:

    ” A 12-foot wall of water slammed into this area a week ago yesterday, leaving high water marks over garage doors, trapping families for days on their second floors, and pulling down telephone poles and breaking windows a half mile inland”

    http://goo.gl/DyqAU

    Now take a pencil and draw a line one mile inland in the Hampton area.

    You’ll know whether or not if this is truly viewed as a random event or not by what the insurance companies do and I predict they’re going to be drawing their own lines up and down the coast and reassessing what they charge.

    I think many of us were not totally shocked at far inland Andrew, Katrina and Ike came on the southern coast but now we know that cities like New York are apparently just as vulnerable to these surges as New Orleans.

    What would be interesting would be to see if these flooded areas of New York and New Jersey have been flooded to the same extent inland during prior decades storms.

  3. Has anyone yet compared Sandy to the 1938 hurricane that hit Long Island very hard? How much more construction is in the flood plain?

  4. I’m quite sure that development has increased especially given the subsidized flood insurance program and that will affect the costs.

    so thinking about that – I’m not sure that just looking at costs alone will reveal much.

    but looking at how far inland these surges have occurred and how often might be worth a look.

    I’m sure the insurance companies are going to be looking at this if they have not already because they have to look at things long term in order to properly assess risk and the cost of insuring.

    but again – if it turns out that these surges used to be once in a hundred years and now are occurring more frequently and affecting larger land areas … it would be a potent indicator that something is changing… and is going to have significant economic impacts.

    and then we could argue on a cost-effective basis which was better – betting that GW was a conspiratorial ruse of conniving scientists or believing the science that the vast majority of scientists believe.

    I would posit that another “Sandy” in a year or two is going to cause some re-thinking. But if we don’t see another one for a generation, then we’ll be ok.

    It’s clear that we won’t accept GW until we see it in action.

Leave a Reply