Tuesday, April 24, 2018

How Climate Change Ruins Your Spring Break

It’s an exciting time when the harsh coldness of winter begins to retreat and the warmth of spring begins to creep in. When the weather starts to get a little bit warmer we all know what this means: spring break. When we hear this term, many of us probably associate it with tropical or coastal areas and this is obviously the case because we all want to enjoy the warmer weather in optimum areas.

"My friend just went to New Orleans. A bunch of other people went to Florida, [that's] the other place," said one student.

"I’ve traveled actually each year for spring break," said Boston University senior Sophie Ashainaze-Collender. "Freshman year I was in Mexico for a service trip, Sophomore year I was in Wisconsin, last year I was in Italy because I was abroad. This past year I was in Durban South Africa for another service trip."

"Usually go skiing, this year i went to France, that was really cool. Otherwise to Colorado," said junior Ken Garber. "My friends, sometimes [they go] to the Caribbean, sometimes they hang out here, most of the time they go home to hang out with family."

Unfortunately, spring break could be completely ruined in the near future for many of us. According to NASA, current projections of global sea level rise by the year 2100 range from 0.2 meters to 2.0 meters. Climate change has been affecting the coastal areas where many people go for vacation. Extreme weather and flooding have become increasingly common, costing coastal areas more and more each year. For some, this means more than just finding another vacation spot. To sophomore Antonia deBianchi, sea level rise means losing her home.

"I’m from Hollywood Florida, which is right near Ft. Lauderdale and Miami," said deBianchi. "So I live by the beach. There’s a lot of different estuaries and lakes, and all of that leading up to the Atlantic."

Living so close to the shoreline means that Antonia and her family have already started to see the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

"In my specific neighborhood, since I live right next to the Intercoastal we’ve had a lot of moon tides. Whenever there’s a full moon the tides will rise a lot and it’s connected to climate change and sea level rise, because it’s happening at a higher rate than typically we’ve seen in the past few years," said deBianchi. "What would happen is my whole neighborhood would start flooding, and it’s definitely a sign of a change in the environment due to our lack of sustainability."

Other students who plan to live on the coast, however, don’t seem to be as conscious of the consequences sea level rise will have on their lives.

"I’m actually going to be going to Washington DC to do a dual degree program," one international relations senior said. "I actually don’t think I’ll be seeing any rising ocean tides in DC, but I don’t know how long it would take for something like this to really make me notice."

From the student interviews we conducted, we get the impression that although college students realize that climate change and sea level rise are issues we have to face, they do not really sense the urgency of the situation. To get a better sense of the magnitude of the situation, our team decided to interview Professor Sergio Fagherazzi, who studies geomorphology, hydrology, and coastal and marine geology here at Boston University.  This is a researcher whose work is largely related to sea level rise. You may say to yourself that, obviously, the nature of his work and research concentrations lead him to seeing the effects of sea level rise more often than the average college student. However, he talked to us about how the effects of sea level rise can be seen in coastal places all across the world.

"In Florida, in Virginia, here in Massachusetts, Louisiana, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, lots of places in China; [there are a] lot of places in which the effect of sea level rise and hurricanes and storms are becoming more evident," Dr. Fagherazzi said.

The Professor was kind enough to give us some personal anecdotes of his experience dealing with sea level rise in his hometown Venice.

So for example my brother has a store, and they have a special gate, basically a metal plank that he has to put in the front of the store to avoid the water coming in during the surge," he said. "The city is prepared in a way that there are alarms, sirens all over the city, no matter if it’s day or night to warn the population that the water is rising that day, and then the people react accordingly. So the people who are very low they need to put protection up.What we thought was unique of Venice, because Venice is very low, because it was built very low. There was sea level rise for many decades because the land is going down, so the lifestyle you have in Venice, it might become more and more frequent everywhere else, including Boston."

Do you hear what the professor is saying, fellow Boston residents? We may have to adopt a more Venetian lifestyle in Boston in the near future. As you can see, sea level rise will affect us in places that are seemingly fine at the moment.


Projected sea level rise in Boston today and in 2030, 2045, 2060, 2080, and 2100. From maps created by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"So my family has a place in Venice, where I grew up, and I was asking people around 'should I sell?' And interesting, the response of people my age is, 'It’s not going to happen before you die, you know if it’s a question of a 20 or 30 years, you’re safe,'" Dr Fagherazzi said. "But young people, they have more than 20 or 30 years left, so they think more in the long term. But this mentality, that it’s not our problem, that it’ll happen in 50 or 100 years is probably what’s preventing us from acting now."

This was an interesting and critical piece of information Professor Fagherazzi gave us to think about. It seems that most people, although acknowledging the presence of a looming issue of sea level rise, tend to want to neglect the problem because it hasn’t affected them significantly yet. This, however, is a dangerous mindset. Moreover, socioeconomic factors will surely lead to issues as the effects of sea level rise become increasingly prominent. This is because lower income people will find it more difficult to adapt to changing conditions, whereas people of higher income could potentially afford to move inland or adapt to conditions in some other fashion.

"My sister is an engineer, so in an internship they thought of sea level rise economically," deBianchi said. "In their contracts and blueprints they have to decide if [the building] is environmentally feasible to build near the beach because they don’t know if in a few years that’ll be sustainable."

Antonia’s story allows us to get a better understanding of how sea level rise will have a huge impact on a lot of people in the near future. In fact, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 2014 global sea level average was 2.6 inches above the global average in 1993. It is also important to note that local sea level rise can be greater (or less) than the rate of global sea level rise, due to many factors such as subsidence, upstream flood control, erosion, regional ocean currents, and many more. Many of these factors are dependent on human activity, and it is therefore true to say that our actions can have a direct effect on local sea level rise  In talking to students around campus, we found that although everyone was familiar with sea level rise and seemed to think that it was an important issue, most of them didn’t know much of the science behind it beyond the fact that it’s related to climate change.

 Map of predicted sea level rise. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Global warming is the most important thing, causing sea level rise. That’s what I believe, that it also causes ice melting," one Chinese international student told us.

"Probably human waste, in terms of plastics, other throwaway items. Carbon, in the atmosphere, and anything man made in terms of gases that goes into the atmosphere," Ashainaze-Collender said.

"In fifty years, where the neighborhood where I lived will most likely be under water," deBianchi said. "Miami is definitely home and an option for me to go back to. My family lives there, so it’s definitely a concern, because even if I don't live there, everyone I love lives there so it’s definitely something that’s concerning."

When we think about sea level rise, we usually think about the future.  However, lots of scientists like Dr. Sean Mackay, a post-doctoral associate at Boston University, are studying the past. We asked him why studying paleoclimate, or past climate, is so important.

"My research focuses primarily on looking at archives of ancient ice and ancient atmosphere and pretty all of what I look at is located in Antarctica. To a large extent the only way we have an idea of what the Earth is actually capable of doing in the future is by understanding what it has done in the past," Dr. Mackay said. "So, apart from just general curiosity as a human for what we’ve gone through on this planet, it has very real world consequences. If we understand a configuration the Earth has already had, and is that configuration was under circumstances, or greenhouse gases or temperature of what we’ll expect in the future then we already have a perfect type case for what the Earth may do in the future. So it’s a way of judging the future by looking at the past."

Dr. Mackay explained to us how there are two main causes of sea level rise.

"It’s the expansion or contraction of the ocean by changes in the temperature of the ocean. Right now we’re talking about expansion of the ocean because the ocean is heating up," Dr. Mackay said. "Cause number two is simply the addition of water from land based ice. Those are the two fundamental drivers of sea level rise."

While some of the students we talked to mentioned melting ice, none of them were able to identify the expansion of warm water as a cause of sea level rise.  We asked Dr. Mackay about other misconceptions people have about sea level rise.

"Even if some scientist tells me it’s going to go up by 2 or 3 feet in 80 years it doesn’t sound like a lot, because I may live 200 feet above the ocean, but understand that that seemingly small amount of sea level rise can have a very large impact on the global Earth system and especially coastal communities," Dr. Mackay said. "It’s a couple feet, we could just build our walls a little higher, but you’d have to build a wall around the entire continent. It’s just not that simple. As soon as your raise the global ocean level a little bit, when i start talking about storm surges, hurricanes, global hazards, it goes up non-linearly. In other words, a small change can have a big impact."

So based on how we’ve already changed the environment, sea level rise is unavoidable, and we will need to develop ways of dealing with it.  We asked Professor Fagherazzi to explain what we can do about sea level rise.

"Singapore is building a new port. They’re rebuilding one of the largest ports in the world, and they ask their scientists to forecast sea level, and they raise the port accordingly. In Venice there are plans to put gates up to block the surges, they’re building them now," said Dr. Fagherazzi. "They’re doing the same thing in London, so London is very low, and with sea level rise the center of London could flood from the Thames, so they put up locks. They put up locks in St. Petersburg, and in Amsterdam in the main channel."
"A lot of places they’re already acting to stop the flooding but they’re hard structures and very expensive. I don’t know if they’ll make the same plan for Boston, but the two options are to stop flooding or just retreat," Dr. Fagherazzi said. "I would stay far away from the shore, at least two meters above high tide, and 200 or 300 meters inland. I would never buy a place that is less than two meters above high tide and 200 meters away from the shore. It’s important that we don’t develop areas that are very low, I think in a lot of places we’re still building at the shore without considering these extreme events.

So it seems like it is necessary for us to deal with a mix of climate mitigation and adaptation when it comes to global sea level rise. When we say climate mitigation, we mean actions to reduce global warming, just like Professor Fagherrazi was talking about in terms of reducing our carbon footprint. Adaptation to a changing climate, and changing sea levels, would entail innovative engineering, like building walls for example, or a significant change in the way we live.

"Nobody knows for example that where we are now, Boston University, was a wetland or even some parts were a bay. So here was water, and now it wants to go back to water. And people think it’s safe, but how many students know about the tide? If I ask a student how high the tide gets, they don’t know, because we protect ourselves with these walls and locks, to prevent the tide from coming in and flooding," he said.

"When there’s a big flood you can see water rising a lot, and we feel protected, but that protection is very ephemeral. The same as New Orleans, they thought they were protected because of the levees, but they didn’t even know they were under water, technically. I would be worried if I were young, of some situations. I would be very careful where I decided to live, lots of places on the shore nowadays, it’s not a question if it’s going to be flooded or not, but a question of when."

Created by Eleanor Ho, Lauren Mock, Josh Taylor, and Kaiya Weatherby.

Sea level rise image sliders provided by Climate Central. Global temperatures are predicted to rise by 2°C by the end of the century.