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Katrina's warning unheeded?

They're still struggling to rebuild New Orleans, four years after Hurricane Katrina dunked the Crescent City and other low-lying areas in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.  The costliest storm in US history hit Aug. 29, 2005.

Now come two coastal scientists who warn that what's being rebuilt is likely to get flooded again - and that other waterfront communities, including Baltimore, face the risk of similar watery calamities as global warming raises sea levels across the planet.

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In "The Rising Sea," Orrin Pilkey and Rob Young argue that "the world is poised on the edge of a cliff (of its own making).  We must act now by responding to the challenges of sea level rise in a planned and rational way, taking a long-term view.  If we don't start planning now, a huge 'natural disaster' is facing us."

Their book, published by Island Press, focuses on New Orleans and Miami and other cities frequently in the cross-hairs of hurricanes.  But in a telephone interview, the authors say the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore will not escape the rising seas, either.  We do get hit by the occasional storm - just six years ago, Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the Inner Harbor, as seen at right, as well as City Dock in Annapolis and other low-lying communities around the bay.   But Pilkey and Young say even without storms, the bay will continue to creep inexorably inland, as it has for decades.

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"One of the interesting problems you guys face is your port facility," said Pilkey, professor emeritus at Duke University and a long-time critic of coastal development. As the seas rise over the next century, he says, "you can bring in bigger ships, but your docks will be inundated."

Some may wonder what the fuss is about when even the United Nations-backed scientific study two years ago projected that sea level would rise somewhere between 7 and 23 inches by the end of this century  But Pilkey and Young point out the scientific congress low-balled its estimate because it couldn't agree how much the seas would rise as ice sheets and glaciers melt in frozen Greenland and west Antarctica.   Other scientists since have suggested that that melting ice could dwarf the cautious official projections, by several feet.  Pilkey and Young suggest planners might want to assume as a worst case that sea level could actually climb 7 feet by next century.

A scary scenario, to be sure.  But, they argue, sea level rise is already under way, and no one in authority is taking the gradual threat seriously enough yet, particularly in cities like Miami, with high-rises crowding the beachfront.

Projections are that sea level rise likely will accelerate as the planet warms and more ice melts.  But even if it continues to creep upward at the rate of 2.5 to 3.5 millimeters a year - as it has for the past decade - that spells "a big heap of trouble" for barrier islands and communities like Miami, says Young, geosciences professor at Western Carolina University and a native of Newport News, Va.  Around the Chesapeake, the water has risen about a foot in the past century - half from rising sea level, the rest from sinking land.

The two say they're not advocating an abandonment of an already heavily developed coast.  But they say government should absolutely stop letting anymore high-rises be built close to the water - and should stop subsidizing redevelopment of storm-ravaged areas.

"This is America," Young says.  We don't like retreat.  We don't like telling people what to do.  But at the very least, they should be planning for where people could be relocating or retreating after the next storm hits and the community is destroyed."

They acknowledge there may be good cultural and political reasons to rebuild a city like New Orleans, but they also say engineers and politicians alike need to be honest about the likelihood the water will be back.   They say they fear that Louisianans, in particular, have been misled to think that restoring the wetlands along the Gulf coast will shield them from future storms.  Those assurances are based on shaky science, they warn.

"The jury is still out to what degree - if any - wetlands may mitigate storm surge," Young says. Yet just last week environmental groups upset with the Army Corps of Engineers pace of wetlands restoration hailed the Obama administration for vowing to take a stronger hand.  The green groups repeated the oft-stated assertion that Katrina's damage was so severe because Louisiana has lost about a third of its original coastal wetlands.

Though Young and Pilkey says they support environmental restoration, they say it needs to be done for the right reasons - and in places where it will last.

"One has to question spending billions of dollars on environmental restoration in an area that's going to be under water in decades," Young says.

A couple native Alaskan fishing communities are already planning to relocate at vast government expense as the sea encroaches on their land.  So are isolated communities hugging low-lying atolls in the Pacific.  Here in Maryland, Smith Island is at obvious risk - taxpayers must ask themselves whether they want to pay for seawalls to try to hold back the rising tides, or to pay for relocation to higher ground.

"You don't have to be alarmist to be concerned," Young concludes.  Even if you're being extremelyl conservative .. these are issues that are going to have to be tackled."

What do you think?  Are you willing to contribute your tax dollars to replenishing the sand on eroding beaches in resorts like Ocean City?  When the waves get high enough, would you be willing to pay for sewalls that keep the water off the boardwalk, most of the time?   Do you mind paying for roads, schools and other public infrastructure in flood-prone areas when it gets damaged by storms?

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For more on the mid-Atlantic coast's sensitivity to sea-level rise, you can find a federal science report here.  Or check out the report of the Maryland Climate Commission here.

(Photos of Isabel flooding in downtown Baltimore, Sept. 2003, by Amy Davis of The Baltimore Sun.)

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