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Senate Hearing Focuses on Threat of Sea Level Rise

New Report: Sea Level Rise Threatens Hundreds of U.S. Energy Facilities (PDF)
Interactive Map: Surging Seas, Sea Level Rise Analysis
Watch: Ben Strauss' Senate Testimony
Watch: Archived webcast of Senate hearing
Read: Ben Strauss' Senate testimony
Read: Senate testimony of five witnesses 

Sea level rise poses an increasingly grave threat to coastal energy facilities and communities during the course of the next several decades, with some impacts already evident, according to testimony delivered Thursday before a rare Senate hearing on climate science.

The hearing, held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, focused on the challenges posed by sea level rise, which is one of the most visible manifestations of a warming planet.

“Sea level rise takes the current level of vulnerability and multiplies it,” said Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). “When sea levels rise, the storm surge associated with extreme storms gets even worse, and even an average storm can have above-average consequences.”

Chairman of the Senates Energy and Natural Resources Committe, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

Although Chairman Bingaman said he hoped the hearing would help restart “a national conversation” on climate change, the hearing instead may have served to highlight the continuing partisan divide on global climate change. While there were five Democrats in attendance, just one Republican — ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — participated in the hearing, a fact not lost on Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, who called climate change the proverbial “elephant in the room.”

The panel of witnesses, which included Climate Central’s Ben Strauss, emphasized that coastal communities are already dealing with the impacts of sea level rise, and that federal actions that can support adaptation and mitigation efforts should be considered.

“Rising seas raise the launch pad for coastal storm surges and tilt the odds toward disaster,” Strauss said.

According to a new report Climate Central released Thursday, by 2030, storm-driven floods reaching 4 feet above the high-tide line will occur twice as often as today. The report is based on projections contained in two scientific papers published in March in the journal Environmental Research Letters and online, where interactive coastal flood risk maps are posted.

Senator Murkowski called the new report's findings "a wakeup call" to near-term climate change risks.

Strauss presented the committee with data showing that there are nearly 300 energy facilities in the U.S. that are situated less than 4 feet above sea level, and 4.9 million Americans who live below the 4-foot mark, making them extremely vulnerable to flooding from a combination of sea level rise and storm surge.

The majority of the vulnerable energy facilities are located in Louisiana and coastal Texas.

In total, global average sea levels have crept upwards by about 8 inches since 1880, and projections show that there is a high likelihood that they will increase by at least another 8 inches by the middle of this century.

According to Waleed Abdalati, the chief scientist for NASA, this projection is “probably at the low end” of recent forecasts.

The main causes of sea level rise are thermal expansion due to warming ocean temperatures, since seawater expands when it warms, as well as melting polar ice sheets, which add large volumes of water to the oceans each year.

While global average sea level rise is important, it is the local sea level that really matters to communities and operators of coastal energy facilities, such as oil refineries and nuclear power plants. And local sea level rise will vary considerably, based on factors such as the sinking of coastal land, and the shape of the sea floor along the coastline.

Senators and witnesses expressed concern about the risk exposure of existing coastal energy facilities, including nuclear power plants. Because they require water for cooling purposes, many of the approximately 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. are situated along the coast. Florida even has two nuclear plants located on barrier islands, including Turkey Point, which was affected by Hurricane Andrew in 1992

“There are known vulnerabilities of current energy infrastructure to the conditions in which they exist today,” said Anthony Janetos, director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. “These vulnerabilities are being increased as sea levels inexorably continue to rise.”

Leonard Berry, a co-director of Florida Atlantic University’s Climate Change Initiative, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the U.S. nuclear industry, should investigate sea level rise-related risks.

There was agreement that the federal government needs to do more to support climate adaptation efforts nationwide. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said she plans to introduce “WeatherReady” legislation to support severe weather-related preparedness efforts, which could include climate change adaptation measures.

“We can’t sustain this level of sea level rise without a plan,” she said. “We need a plan.”

Murkowski called current federal flood maps, produced by FEMA, “lousy” and out of date, and criticized the lack of foresight on the part of federal agencies to help prevent disasters. Instead, she said, the government seems to only be there to swoop in after the fact and help clean up.

New York City faces a wide array of sea level rise-related challenges, including the vulnerability of the transit system to coastal flooding. Adam Freed, deputy director of New York City’s office of long-term planning and sustainability, said the current FEMA flood maps, which are used to help set insurance rates and define a 1-in-100 year flood, are out of date and need to be redone in a way that includes sea level rise. Freed said that private insurers are pulling out of areas that are beyond the 100-year-flood zone in New York City, because they recognize that sea level rise is causing storm surge risks to “migrate” farther inland.


By James Newberry (New Haven)
on April 21st, 2012

According to numerous analyses (eg. Professor Mark Pagani at Yale), at our present approximate 400 ppm carbonic acid gas concentration (approx. 500 ppm equivalent) seas will trend to rise by some 80 feet.

There will be no “adaptation” for this human-caused disaster, except abandonment, unless we have a global non-nuclear clean energy policy revolution.

Perhaps someday we will acknowledge that petroleum is not a resource of energy. It is a liquid, a form of matter whose “energy efficiency” is meaningless. It’s ignition by our species creates carbonic acid gas and carbonic acidification of soils and seas. These are perverse “externalities” under nation-state fueled capitalism, which are presenting however “clear and present danger.”

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By Frederick Taubert (Delray Beach Fl 33483)
on April 23rd, 2012

The U S Government has stated that te sea has risen from 4 to 8 inches over the last 100 years,

That is a 100% difference which means that it might be 0 and being 80 years old and living on the sea my whole life,  making note of rocks and pilings, the sea has not gone anywhere in my life time!

Ben Strauss is talking his position and just wants to keep a nice job, so he has to beat the drums of nonsense and that is the bottom line..


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By Steve (Ocean Beach, CA, 92107)
on April 26th, 2012


You don’t notice your 80 year old face getting older day by the day, but you do notice a difference after 80 years right?


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By Mike MacCracken (Bethesda MD 20814)
on May 4th, 2012

It is also worth noting that the 8 inch or so rise in the global average sea level is not felt uniformly everywhere because of other factors affecting what is happening in particular regions. Here in Maryland, land is sinking about 6 inches per century as a result of ongoing recovery from being pushed upwards during the last glacial when pushed downwards to the north of us. Flying over Chesapeake Bay, one can see evidence of islands that used to have small communities being covered with water—-so sea level rise here is real, and at a greater rate than land subsidence.

Thus, one has to be wary of generalizing what one might experience at a particular location to the nation or the world, especially as severe storms can move sand in and out and it can be hard to really understand what is happening. Sometimes an alternative measure, such as the rising sea level pushing salt water into coastal aquifers and groundwater can be a more reliable indicator.

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By Andrew
on May 4th, 2012


Yes, you’re right about the lack of uniform SLR across the globe. Our research clearly shows this (, but it didn’t seem necessary to discuss in the context of this news story since it wasn’t a focus of the hearing itself. We do discuss it in context of our other SLR coverage, though, as it’s a very important point.

Thanks! -A

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By Larry Menkes cSBA (Warminster, PA 18974)
on May 4th, 2012

An assertion based on a single localized observation without firm scientific data (no tide gauge info, etc) is worth about 1/300M of the total picture. The acclaimed CCAN video, “We Are All Smith Islanders” documents the inhabited 12 Chesapeake Bay islands that have been abandoned over the last century. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

According to some research a mere one meter sea level rise would overwhelm the world’s financial ability to cope. According to the data I’m watching (i.e. NSIDC, etc.) we are continuing to deepen the hole we’re in. The melting of the cryosphere (frozen parts of the world) is accelerating. James Balog’s “Extreme Ice” is enough documentation to make your hair stand on end.

It is well known that floodplain maps are seriously out of date. But avoiding accurate data will not make the problem go away. As a retired paramedic I treated many patients who ignored or avoided their doctors advice. As a Sustainable Building Advisor I have found that most global climate change critics are energy illiterate, fiscally irresponsible in the way they waste energy, and ignorant of exponential math. The amount of wasted energy in the US is more than 50%, and as much as 90% according to some expert studies (RMI, ACEEE, etc.).

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By George Meredith MD (Virginia Beach, VA 23451)
on June 19th, 2012

It’s About the Sponge, Stupid!
To Modify Rising Sea Levels

re: “Words, Not Action on Coastal Flooding” Virginian Pilot Editorial 06.13.12
Virginia’s Tree Huggers and their mouthpiece, the Virginian Pilot, would have us believe that if we were to all drive these (dangerous) little Chevrolet Volts, plug in to some Rube Goldberg Windmill and eat bamboo shoots, that we could change global warming with its associated sea level rise. But we both know that this is not the case.
”¢      Because the planet Earth wobbles on its long axis over a 23,000 year cycle, its inhabitants must endure glacial and glacial melt cycles. Glacial and interglacial periods. For instance, our shoreline was 65 miles east, 11,500 years ago. Witness the walrus tusks that scallop boats have dredged up in the Norfolk Canyon. And in another 11,500 years, our mid Atlantic shoreline will once again be on Broad Street in what was once downtown Richmond, Virginia. Witness the whale skeleton fossils that have been found in and near Richmond.
”¢      Understand: As the earth wobbles on its axis, the Atlantic Ocean/Chesapeake Bay shorelines advances and recedes on a precise 23,000 year cycle. Based on the status of the polar ice cap vis a vis its line of declination to the sun. This has been going on for hundreds of thousands, probably for millions, of years. And no Obama Volt, windmill or government mandated bamboo shoot diet is going to change that!
”¢      However, there are some embarrassingly simple things that the current residents of today’s receding Atlantic shoreline can do to greatly modify the effects of this “sea level rise”. Specifically, we should stop squandering the navigation channel dredge spoils that the central government is, at some considerable expense, parking in a series of ill conceived (Chesapeake Bay watershed) USACE vertical dredge spoil sites. Including, the Whitehurst Pit, Craney Island and Popular Island. And through the use of hydraulic rotary cutter head pipeline dredges and Rolligon amphibious ditcher-spreaders, use, instead, these navigation channel dredge spoils to reconstruct the fringe marshes and tidal creeks of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And thus greatly modify the flooding associated with major rainstorms, hurricanes and big northeasters.

The Virginian Pilot’s editorial board and, specifically news writer Scott Harper have been repeatedly advised by me and others that the answer to modifying the local effects of rising sea levels involves reestablishment/establishment of large, healthy fringe marshes (living shorelines). And by unblocking those tidal marshes that have been cut off from their estuaries by poorly planned roadways and rail lines.
Simply by depositing navigation channel dredge spoils on a long intertidal slope just seaward of certain bulkheads and eroded shorelines nearby, beautiful, vibrant fringe marshes could be reestablished in one short year. And by enlarging culverts that pass beneath obstructing roadways and rail lines.  Remember:  an acre of salt marsh can remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as can ten acres of (tree farm) pine or oak plantings.

The Pilot, and particularly Harper, continue to ignore two of the most important studies on control of rising sea levels, reestablishment of critical tidal marshland sponge effect, as well as estuary tidal water cleanup.  The first is the work of former US Senator and American sportsman John Breaux. Witness: the pipeline dredging of shipping channels in the Mississippi River and placement of the associated dredge spoils, on long 1:6 intertidal slopes just seaward of eroded shorelines. So as to reestablish healthy fringe marshes. Within one year, without marsh grass planting, and without rip rap sills, new living shoreline (fringe marshes) can be established (reestablished)’. These marshland restoration projects are ongoing or already established in Galveston Bay, in Little River Marsh, New Hampshire, in coastal New Jersey and Delaware, in coastal Louisiana, in south San Francisco Bay and elsewhere.

The second study is that of BC Wolverton, a NASA environmental engineer. Wolverton has shown that new (living shoreline) marshes can remove sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus, raw sewage, Hepatitis A viral particles, heavy metals, coliforms and PCBs from the waters that flow through them. During twice daily tidal cycles. Accordingly, water clarity is markedly improved and thus the ability to grow submerged aquatic vegetation is enhanced! In addition to restoring the vital sponge properties of tidal watersheds. Sponge properties that are essential to modify the damage of rising sea levels. Especially during hurricanes, during heavy rains and during northeasters.

And pipeline dredge restoration of fringe marshes could be done for practically nothing. Especially when considering the savings in disposal (repositioning) navigation channel dredge instead of transporting same to the Whitehurst Pit, Craney Island, Popular Island and other USACE designated vertical dredge spoil deposition sites.

Pay attention!  Mr. Harper and your colleagues at the Virginian Pilot. We need tidal marshes, not granite rip rap sills, volunteer trash pickup programs, oyster reefs, expensive Bacterra storm water filers, buffer zone shrub plantings and the other feel good-do nothing projects that you are so anxious to promote.  Listen! To modify the effects of rising sea levels, we must reestablish the fringe marshes and unblock those tidal marshes that have been degraded by poorly planned roadways and rail lines. Once the tidal marshes are restored, the storm water will take care of itself! But not vice versa. Sir, again, I plead with you and your collaborators to use your library cards before you offer more illogical, poorly researched concepts as those you have presented on this editorial page,  as well as in other similarly positioned articles.

It’s about the sponge, stupid!

George Meredith MD, President
Linkhorn-Rudee Waterway Fund

To learn more about economical marshland restoration, storm water management and Scott Harper’s and the Virginian Pilot’s repeated ignorance of same, search: George Meredith MD Marshland Pipeline Dredging Comments

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