Archive for the ‘Flooding’ Category

Ice & Us: There Is No Turning Back

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

The scientific community seems to talk about rising sea levels A LOT. This makes sense – as far as consequences of global warming go, it’s one of the easiest to explain, and one of the most potentially disastrous. We’ve looked at how a rise in sea level would effect us domestically and the results were not heartening. It’s pretty easy A-to-B math to see that if the sea level goes up, many coastal cities will be in critical danger of flooding and other natural disasters, and the entire ecology of the oceans will drastically change. And if that proof wasn’t in the pudding before, it sure is now.

Two new studies released this week confirm that the enormous West Antarctica Ice Sheet, the segment of the Western Antarctica continent that extends out into the Amundsen Sea, is losing mass at a rate that cannot be reversed. The ice sheet is estimated to weigh 25.4 million km3, however the accepted narrative in scientific communities for decades has been that it has been steadily and exponentially losing mass, to the point where snowfall is no longer replacing the amount of ice the sheet is losing. Between the years of 1996 and 2006, there was a 75% increase is the amount of ice mass lost, a statistic that seemingly should have set off alarm bells eight years ago. This week’s studies, then, should really just function as icing on a terrible, terrible cake, but judging by the reactions seen online, a lot of people were unaware that this was a problem.

The studies (one published in Science and one in Geophysical Research Letters) reach the same unsettling conclusion – the ice sheet is falling apart, and at this point the process cannot be reversed or delayed. The melting process will unsettle neighboring sections the larger continental ice sheet, and will result in a 10 + ft. rise in sea level. This will continue to happen slowly over the rest of the 21st century and speed up in coming centuries to the point of total global crisis. Coming on the heels of very pessimistic reports on climate change from the White House and NASA, it seems the gravity of the situation is finally starting to sink in on the Internet at large. I saw links to both of the aforementioned studies linked to dozens of times on many social networks by all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t be inclined to share this kind of stuff. The reality of climate change has, for many, finally gotten personal.

What We Can Reasonably Expect From Our Cities

Photo by mediafury. Some rights reserved.

Photo by mediafury. Some rights reserved.

A new report released last Friday in draft form by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (or more succinctly, the NCADAC) has been raising heads and eyebrows this week across the energy/environmental sector, as would any official suggestion from the government that things may be worse than we think on the global warming front.

The report specifically suggests such harbingers of doom such as an 11 degree rise in temperatures by the end of this century, an eight inch rise in sea levels (the consequences we were reminded of late this year), and more obscure-yet-troubling byproducts of climate change such as more pollen in the air (making allergies worse) and more ticks in general (making everything worse). And of course, every big picture idea in the report has its own local implications depending on where you live. For low altitude coastal cities like (oh, say) Seattle, flooding is a very real possibility. In Georgia, the reports threaten “hundred year storms” that could start occurring annually, and in California, future flooding has implications for power plants that are closer to sea level.

So, the point? We have to start thinking locally. The federal government can only make climate change so much of a priority, with everything else going on (though for whoever’s interested, the EPA just released their FY 2013 Annual Plan). Grist has a nice piece up today that suggests that urban centers are expected (and often do) “take the lead” on adopting climate change policies, and even inventing and enforcing their own when they see fit.

In a liberal city like Seattle, it’s easy to see local efforts to combat global warming in effect, even in smaller municipal gestures like compost bins and bike lanes. However, the report cited in the Grist article (by UCLA urban planner Rui Wang) claims that cities by and large adopt more basic, less work-intensive climate change policies first, and that they do it piecemeal. Cities willing to take on the more rigid measures were most often those which had already exhausted implementing the easier policies.

The report argues that often the easier measures are those that benefit both the city/business and the environment (we in the 9 – 5 world are probably familiar with simple corporate efforts to “go green” such as reducing printed paper around the office or setting goals for lower building energy – these measures help contribute to a green effort and ultimately save the company money), where the more difficult actions are those that most often will harm or interfere with budgets and do not have as many “tangible benefits” for its implementers. It’s an interesting-if-not-exactly-new concept, and worth giving some consideration no matter where you live.

National Flood Insurance and Jersey Shore Demographics

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.

Back in 1968, Congress stepped into the flood insurance market to provide coverage where private insurers would not. Today, taxpayers back $527 billion of assets in coastal flood plains insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. Run by the Federal Emergency Agency, the program paid out $16 billion of claims for Katrina; Sandy-related claims could reach $12 billion. The program is already $18 billion in debt, as sum the government acknowledges will probably never be covered by higher premiums.

Besides the program’s cost, what is the issue? In New York alone, 200,000 people live less than four feet above the high tide level. Nationwide, the number of people living in flood-prone areas has been increasing, so each natural disaster damages more property and displaces more people than the last. An op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times opines that the time for the federal government to subsidize the insuring of homes and businesses in high-risk flood zones is long past. If property owners cannot find flood insurance on the private market, which in many cases they cannot, they should bear that risk instead of transferring it to the federal government.

One of the implications of changing federal flood insurance would be increased cost of living in coastal areas. Another Times article covers how Sandy and the coming National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes will make “seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford.” Building requirements for homes in newly mapped flood hazard zones could effect a demographic shift in the northeast, because much of the development encouraged by subsidized insurance would only be affordable to wealthy buyers.

The wisdom of subsidizing status quo demographics on the Jersey Shore to the tune of $18 billion aside, the point of reducing or eliminating federal flood insurance would be to end the cycle of natural disaster and expensive rebuilding without internalizing the risks of development in flood-prone coastal areas, which in light of recent events are certainly expanding. This is a step toward affordable environmental risk-management most people can back in good conscience.

The Link Between Sandy and Global Warming

Photo by National Weather Service. Some rights reserved.

As we’ve rightly focused our national attention squarely on the well-being of America’s east coast in the midst of Hurricane Sandy (please consider making a donation to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts here), there doesn’t appear to be much else happening in the wide world of environmental news and politics. However, as photos and on-site reports continue to flow in from New York and elsewhere across the coast, some have began to ask whether or not Sandy really is a freak occurrence, or if it is more a product of that scourge to American prosperity known as “global warming.”

While pointing out that climate scientists are not yet in a secure position to offer a resounding “yes” to the question of climate change’s involvement in Sandy, many have cited high surface temperatures in the band of Atlantic ocean closest to the east coast (five degrees higher than average for this time of year) as a “likely contributor to the intensity of Sandy.

Kevin Trenberth, climate scientist of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, gave an insightful interview to Slate, where he offered his take:

“Most of what is going on with Sandy is weather, and there is a large chance element to it, but it is all occurring in an environment where the ocean is a bit warmer, the air above the ocean is warmer and moister, and that is fuel for the storm and especially adds to the risk of heavy rainfalls and flooding… Even if the storm just happened to do exactly the same things it’s doing anyway, the fact that sea level went up 6 inches last century, and that sea level is somewhat higher now than it has been at any time in recent history, means that all of the coastal regions are experiencing new levels of pounding and erosion.”

Meanwhile, Megan McCain was chastised on Twitter today by members of the conservative right for suggesting that Sandy was a result of global warming, and Donald Trump has (very graciously) extended his now-infamous $5 million offer to President Obama in light of the storm.

FEMA’s Proposed Changes to the National Flood Insurance Program

Photo by kevin dooley. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this month, law firm Van Ness Feldman published an Alert detailing FEMA’s plans for revising the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

The NFIP was developed in the late 1960s in response to a few seasons of nasty natural disasters. It is a federal program that encourages landowners in participating communities to adopt and enforce FEMA approved floodplain management ordinances. Those communities are then eligible to purchase flood insurance through the program, which is designed to provide a financial alternative to relying on emergency disaster relief. According to FEMA, “the costs associated with flood damage are reduced by nearly $1.7 billion a year” through the program.

Not everyone has been happy with the NFIP, of course. According to Van Ness Feldman, ever since its adoption, the program has faced “ongoing significant criticism,” with critics claiming that it either doesn’t do enough, or does way too much, depending on whom you ask. (For instance, environmentalists have criticized FEMA’s failure to consult with USFWS and/or NMFS on the impact of the NFIP on endangered species.) It is supposedly these criticisms that have driven FEMA to reform the NFIP.

In a mid-May, FEMA filed a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, proposing to evaluate the following proposed action and alternatives in their EIS:

(1) Modify the NFIP based upon changes identified through the evaluation process to enhance floodplain management standards including provisions to address endangered species and habitat concerns. This is FEMA’s proposed action.

(2) Taking no action, which would result in the continued administration and implementation of the NFIP as it stands today.

(3) Discontinue the NFIP, recognizing that only Congress can take this action.

(4) Request legislative authority to remove existing subsidies and cross subsidies for flood insurance policies.

(5) Modify the NFIP based upon changes identified through the evaluation process to enhance floodplain management standards including provisions to address endangered species and habitat concerns and request legislative authority to remove existing subsidies and cross subsidies for flood insurance policies.

Comments will be accepted on the Notice until July 16, 2012.

Learn more about the NFIP: FEMA on the basics, NFIP evaluation, and NFIP reform. You can also read about recent changes to the NFIP approved in late June by Congress as part of the Federal Public Transportation Act of 2012 (see Title II).

%d bloggers like this: