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Stemming the rising tide

By Mike Pope - posted Wednesday, 2 September 2009


From Spizbergen in the Arctic to Charcot Island off the Antarctic coast, more than 150,000 glaciers are melting. They are doing so much quicker than predicted by the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change in 2007. Even the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets, until recently thought invulnerable to global warming, have begun melting and showing signs of collapse.

The melting of the west Antarctic ice shelf and the Greenland ice cap alone would increase sea levels. The effect on sea level by the melting of mountain glaciers and other land-based ice and snow in the Andes, Rocky Mountains, European ranges, the Hindu Kush and Himalayas has not been fully calculated but, combined, this melting of land based snow and ice has the potential to raise sea levels by at least 2-3m by mid century.

Common sense tells us that melting of land-based ice produces water which ultimately flows to the sea. With accelerated melting of glacier ice, which is now occurring, a rise in sea levels is inevitable. It is the speed at which ice is melting that should give greatest concern because this makes the consequences all the more inescapable and uncontrollable. It increases the prospect of sea levels rising dangerously over the next 40-50 years particularly if, as predicted, atmospheric temperatures continue rising.

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Politicians, such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, tell us that we must learn to live with the effects of global warming. The problem is that those effects are likely to bring about hardships such as hunger and disease entailing massive loss of life as the supply of fresh water diminishes and coastal flooding by salt water increases.

Nevertheless, our political leaders believe it is far more important to use the pretext of preserving jobs in the short term rather than reduce CO2 emissions. Above all, they assert that we must support and protect the Australian coal industry. They seek on-going use of coal, both for generating domestic electricity supplies and as a major export - of pollution - on which governments and industry depend for revenue and cheap electricity. They claim this gives Australia a competitive edge in export trade.

This claim is used by Government and Opposition as an excuse and justification for massively subsidising the production and use of the world’s largest CO2 pollutant, coal. Less contentiously they assert that Australia acting alone can make very little difference to global greenhouse gas emissions. They are right.

However, significantly reducing greenhouses gas emissions can place Australia in the position of being a world leader in this area; a position which gives it the moral authority to demand that the worst polluters - the USA and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries - follow its lead.

As things stand, Australia is the largest coal exporter in the world and one of its largest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gasses. It therefore behoves us to examine the consequences of this lack of political will, not only for Australia but for other parts of the world.

Well before sea levels rise by as much as a metre, it is certain that during tidal surges and “king” high tides considerable coastal erosion will occur. Infrastructure and property built on low coastal areas will be lost or damaged, either as a result of undermined foundations or repetitive flooding.

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As sea levels continue to rise, thousands of dwellings, port facilities such as wharves, cargo storage sheds and other amenities, anywhere along low-lying areas of the Australian coast, may well sustain damage. A rise of a metre or more in sea level would cause flooding with property losses in every capital city in Australia except Canberra and in many of the major provincial cities located on the coast.

A possible 2-3m rise in sea level would cause substantial flooding of the east coastal plain which is extensively used for agriculture, producing vast quantities of fruit, vegetables, spices, nuts and sugar. Production would be disrupted and reduced. Transport infrastructure would be damaged making supply to major cities difficult and limiting export trade. International airports at Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns would be flooded and become unusable.

Roads, bridges and port facilities would be damaged and could not be protected since it should be assumed that with increasing surface temperatures, sea levels will continue to rise as more and more ice melts. Housing and other building losses located on low lying coastal areas would be high. Even icons such as the Sydney Opera House may not be spared since a rise in sea level could undermine its foundations. Damage to the Queensland and New South Wales economies would be significant.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

Other articles by this Author

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Related Links
Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting Rapidly
Collapse Of Antarctic Ice Sheet Would Likely Put Washington, D.C. Largely Underwater
If W. Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, how high will sea levels rise?
Sea Level Rise Could Be Worse Than Anticipated
West Antarctic ice sheet could melt again

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