Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coping with Climate Change: Sea Level Rising

In reference to the YouTube video explaining The Netherlands’ efforts to reclaim land from the sea and to retain tidal surges from flooding low-lying lands, the effort has achieved a variety of results: more than 2000 square kilometers of reclaimed land from the ocean, a dike or barrier to stop high tides from affecting land that lies below sea level, disruption of otherwise natural habitats, diversion of ocean currents, and creation of a safety device to stop storms short of human settlements.

In the process, local fishermen complained that erecting a normal dam would keep fish away from coastal fishing zones. This sparked innovation in the engineers in charge resulting in what is known as one of modern engineering’s marvels.

The question is whether this is a sustainable effort from a financial, environmental and social point of view. As a human-made construction, it will require maintenance because the forces of nature will degrade it over time. This is opposite to what happens with natural constructions, be it forests, marshes, or grasslands: they regenerate over time.

At least that was the case until anthropogenic climate change, where some natural constructions are degraded permanently.

Reclaimed land in the Netherlands has not been reclaimed permanently. If worst-case scenarios of sea level rising occur, it could bring that land back under the ocean. The attempt to prevent it would require a financial and engineering mobilization that might require lifting up the barriers not only along the Dutch coast, but also essentially along the coast of all territories where oceans could penetrate. Financially, that would be out of the question already.

The issue at stake is whether humans are able to cope with climate change through human technology. An interesting approach is what Dutch architects have been developing as housing solutions for high-sea level regions, like the Maldives, which could altogether disappear from above the ocean surface. These architects have been designing life-supporting structures that basically float and are also tied to the ocean floor, allowing for human life to thrive. Another entirely different question is whether the necessary resources to subsist would be available, but the effort is worth mentioning.

Coping with climate change means coping with the new forces of nature that are being triggered: higher sea levels, greater humidity in the air causing more rain and increasing likelihood of flooding, shrinking ice formations reducing river flows during melting season in spring and summer, less arable land and forests, to name a few.

This would require –at a formidable cost- to displace coastal communities to higher ground where the probability of severe disruption by climate-related catastrophes is reduced, relocation of communities towards sustainable water basins to support human activities, better technologies for water preservation, purification, reutilization and management, planting new forests to naturally store and purify water, among others.

It would also imply to change habits of consumption, not only renewable resources, such as water and timber, but also less renewable, like beef and fish, whose consumption at present rates come at such a high environmental cost.

In response to the second sub-question, the largest demerit of engineering approaches to adaptation is that it is an attempt to fight back nature instead of adapting to it. This, instead, would require understanding the new forces of nature and utilizing them to the benefit of life in general, and not only human life in particular.

The greatest merit is the intellectual process that leads to innovation, which is always so inspiring. Even the way inaccessible oil is drilled out through innovative technologies is inspiring, despite the consequences of burning such oil might have. Human inventive character is monumental and truly indispensable for climate change adaptation and mitigation to happen effectively and sustainably. In fact, it would be ideal if experts from different fields of study would come together to collaborate creatively towards the innovation of systems that will address the causes and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Imagine engineers, mathematicians, economists, natural scientists, medical doctors, computer programmers, architects, and philosophers, among others, coming together to define global constraints and to generate new ideas and building solutions for a more prosperous future.

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