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The United Floods of America: Cross-Checking Data on the Coming Deluge

A picture is worth a thousand words. The polar ice is melting, the glaciers are retreating. Whether or not you believe this influx of H2O is caused by anthropogenic global warming (although, seriously, it is), that won’t stop the steady rise in sea levels from here on out.


The inability to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future is what gives climate change deniers so much ammunition. While climate scientists are pretty sure what the future holds, the deniers are absolutely positive that no one knows the future. When it comes to sound bites, the deniers’ emphatic response trumps the scientists’ measured response every time. (It’s a good thing the millennials have been conditioned since Day 1 to think critically about the media; I’m counting on their rationality to help get us out of this mess.)

The point is, we need some graphic illustrations to bring home the dangers of climate change. A polar bear adrift on an iceberg may tug at the heartstrings, but it doesn’t mean much if you live in Florida:



Or Louisiana:


That’s why Nickolay Lamm’s digitized photographs are so amazing. Maybe you’ve seen these pictures. They combine sea level rise mapping data from Climate Central with photographs of beloved American landmarks and shows how the creeping sea level will decimate our landscape. The 12-foot sea level rise he envisions inundates Liberty Island, leaving the Statue of Liberty alone above the waterline while the massive gift shop built in her honor sinks into the drink:


Here’s the Jefferson Memorial with the rising Atlantic sea level of 12 feet:



How about Boston?


And while we’re at it, here’s something for you West Coast people—AT&T Park in San Francisco, after the Giants become a synchronized swim team:


These Photoshopped Pictures of Doom represent the worst case scenario of sea levels rising 12 feet, which is projected to happen in about 200 years under the climate models used by Climate Central, an independent, nonprofit organization staffed by highly regarded scientists and journalists dedicated to disseminating climate facts to the general public. So, obviously, the pictures are simply for illustrative purposes only—no one expects a major league stadium to last more than a couple decades, let alone a couple of centuries.

In addition to these images, Climate Central offers interactive maps of coastal states that show threats from sea level rise and storm surge in every coastal town from Portland, Maine to Galveston, Texas on one coast, and from Seattle to San Diego on the other. The maps show the current population numbers that are in danger from different levels of flooding. It’s important to note that pure sea level rise differs from the threat of tidal and storm surges, like that seen with Hurricane Sandy. The ocean doesn’t have to rise 12 feet for serious Katrina-like destruction; basically, most coastal areas near sea-level are at risk for major damage during serious weather events, which will be more frequent due to the warming ocean currents. But you already knew that.

However, a little fact-checking is in order here. How does Climate Central’s data stack up against the data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)? You can see for yourself at NOAA’s Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts page, which only projects up to a 6-foot sea-level rise, versus Climate Central’s 12 feet. To hedge their bets, NOAA’s map also includes a Mapping Confidence function, which shows the statistical likelihood that a given area will be inundated at each rise in sea level. Upshot: Fort Lauderdale—it’s time to look at inland real estate.

Look at Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale. It’s on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and tons of housing developments have been constructed so each abode is on a canal. At a 6-foot sea level rise, nearly all of the community of over 100,000 people is underwater with a “high degree of confidence” according to the NOAA data (“high degree of confidence” are the areas in blue; “low degree of confidence” is in yellow):


Looking at a similar area from Climate Central’s map, the data is hard to read:


I think the areas underwater are those in the “mapped in area”—everything in white is safe (i.e., in the upper right-hand corner). But it’s hard to tell.

Furthermore, when trying to rectify Lamm’s Photoshopped image of the Statue of Liberty with the mapped data from Climate Central, things are fuzzy. Here’s the mapped image with a sea level rise of 5 feet around Liberty Island:

I think this means that the whole island is underwater, but I’m not sure. You’d think they would somehow indicate that the island is underwater but Lady Liberty herself is not. Here’s the map at a 4-foot sea-level rise:

I take this to mean that the island is largely “safe,” but the docks are gone.

Here’s the data from NOAA with a 6-foot sea level rise at Liberty Island, which seems to coincide fairly well with the 4-foot sea-level rise from Climate Central, although their map doesn’t have as high a resolution:


None of this means that Climate Central’s data is inaccurate, only that it is a bit hard to read. Thus, if you want scare tactics—Lamm’s photos are the way to go. If you want to drill down extremely granular data vetted by experts, NOAA can’t be beat. A corollary of this exercise is that despite politicians who yammer on about how the “jury’s still out” regarding climate change, many large government agencies have been dealing with the reality of global warming for many years and will continue to do so no matter who’s in office.

One question I have as a Michigander is the degree to which the Great Lakes will be affected by rising sea levels. So far, neither NOAA nor Climate Central has addressed this issue. Their maps focus solely on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. I think it all goes back to the uncertainty principle; many more factors are involved in water levels in the Great Lakes than in the comparatively simple prognostication process of pinpointing when Venice Beach will disappear. I take solace in this; it’s comforting to live amidst such a large supply of fresh water, even if “fresh” these days is a relative term.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: July 8, 2014, 10:30 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

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