Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Rising Sea – Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young ****

In the 21st Century, rising global sea levels caused by human induced global warming will more than likely make many island nations and coastal areas around the world uninhabitable, will destroy important ecosystems, and will leave some of our major cities incredibly vulnerable to flooding, storm surges and infrastructure destruction. Yet, as geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young explain in The Rising Sea, the general public is not aware of the seriousness and extent of these problems, and governments are ill prepared to deal with the challenges ahead. The aim of the book is to do something about this, and to provide the facts we need in order to cope with the consequences of sea level rise.
After first covering the causes of sea level rise and how we measure current sea levels, the book goes over how we project future rises and how significant these are likely to be. Here, Pilkey and Young sensibly acknowledge the difficulties in making predictions: for instance, carbon dioxide emissions over the coming years, which will help drive sea level rise, are unknown. But the trends we can find from looking at tide gauge data and satellite data are clear, the authors argue, and they conclude that we should work on the assumption that the mean tide level will have risen seven feet by the year 2100.
Later, the book moves on to what will happen as a result of this rise and what we need to do in response. It suggests, for instance, ways to better manage coastal wetlands so that marshes and mangroves, home to many species, are able to move in response to changes in water levels and salinity. And it argues we need to be more realistic about what we can do to prevent shoreline erosion and that we should accept that many communities at risk will need to be relocated. Mentioned in some detail is Carteret Atoll in the Pacific, a group of islands whose residents began to be evacuated in 1989; the authors rightly emphasise here that people are already having to leave their homelands as a result of sea level rise, and that this is not just a possible scenario for the future.
What struck me whilst reading the book was how often even concerned scientists seem to have underestimated the extent to which sea levels are likely to rise. For instance, as the book explains, in its 2007 fourth assessment report the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not fully consider the contributions to sea level rise of the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. And some global change researchers have assumed that sea levels will rise at a steady rate over the coming years, even though it is probable that the rate is likely to increase. This is very worrying, and anyone who believes scientists tend to over-exaggerate the dangers we face from global warming should read this.
Throughout the book, Pilkey and Young make their points in clear language and draw on a large amount of research to support what they are saying; by the end, it is difficult not to be convinced of the book’s arguments. And because we hear first hand from some of the communities most at risk from rising sea levels – like, for example, the people of Shishmaref, a shoreline village just south of the Arctic circle, where the authors visited – the need to act now on behalf of these communities is made plain.
It’s difficult to find much wrong with the book, and it generally succeeds in what it intends to do. There is one small point, however. In a chapter entitled A Sea of Denial, we are told to ‘ignore declarations from non-scientists’ about sea level rise and climate change and to get our information from trustworthy sources like, among other places, the journals Science and Nature. I would have preferred it if the book encouraged us only to be sceptical of what we’re told from non-specialists, and there are some good journalists – like Mark Lynas in the UK, for instance – who know their stuff.
Overall, though, the book does a much needed job of speaking up about a very important issue. I hope policymakers begin to take the book’s advice sooner rather than later.
Review by Matt Chorley

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