Author, John Englander
John Englander is an oceanographer, consultant and author. Combining personal experiences as a global ocean explorer with expeditions in Antarctica, Greenland, the High Arctic and deep dives in research submarines, his mission is to be a clear, objective voice on our changing climate and oceans. In other words - no scientific jargon, no political advocacy - he just explains the scientific facts and potential impacts in plain English.
His broad marine science background, coupled with dual majors in Geology and Economics enable him to see the big picture on climate and look ahead to the large-scale financial and societal impacts particularly as they relate to sea level rise.
John also combines non-profit CEO experience with the insights of a time-tested business entrepreneur. Today his firm, The Sea Level Institute, works with corporations, government agencies and community organizations advising them on the potential impacts, financial risks and new opportunities from sea level rise.
Visit his website at http://www.johnenglander.net.
The rising sea level is not something that many people stay up nights thinking about. Nonetheless, rising sea level is an important and urgent phenomena that requires our immediate attention. In his book, High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Crisis, John Englander takes an otherwise complicated subject and explains it in terms that most of us will not only understand, but in terms that will allow us to begin to identify why rising sea level is relevant to our lives - right now.
John's book is a must-read...
DR: I want to start our conversation with a quote from the beginning of your book, High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Levels and the Coming Coastal Crisis -
"As sea level rises the shoreline will move hundreds even thousands of feet inland destroying vast amounts of property including most coastal communities..."
Can we start with you elaborating on that point a bit?
JE: The sea level has been rather unchanged for six thousand years. That's pretty much the entire span of human civilization. We have taken for granted that the coastline and sea level may have moved a few inches or a foot or so, but not much. That was our understanding until maybe a hundred years ago. It is now rising and it's almost irrefutable if you look at past records of what happens to sea level fluctuations going up and down three or four hundred feet...
Sea levels can rise for at least a thousand years and for each foot of rise, the shoreline moves anywhere from tens of feet inland to hundreds and, in a few cases, thousands of feet. It depends on the slope of the shoreline and whether in some places there might be a dune that rises up ten or twelve feet, but often behind that dune is actually low land again...
DR: And you said for each foot, that is?
JE: Yes. So a two or three foot rise of sea level has one effect right at the shoreline, depending upon the slope of the beach or the sand dune or the marshland or depending on what the topography is, but when you step back and look at the profile of most elevations like South Florida or even the New Jersey wetlands or parts of Long Island as we saw with hurricane Sandy, the big picture slope of the land is far lower or more gradual than we would tend to think just looking at the beach.
The beach tends to have a pretty good rise or elevation but behind the beach is pretty low and the ocean of course goes in through any inlet, any river, any harbor entrance and will permeate through marshland and so on. So sea level is pervasive. It will find its water level.
JE: There may be a line of high land left at the coastline but usually behind the coast there is extensive lowlands. There is a rise off the beach, the sand dune line, if you look at Long Island or most parts of the Jersey shore and so on. But behind the rise at the shore, at the beach itself, there is usually low land behind it. That is why when you step back, say for a two or three foot sea level rise, what will happen is the ocean will go often thousands of feet, if not miles inland. It may leave a crest right at the beach line; the sand dunes. The rule of thumb is something called the Bruun rule, which says -
"For every foot of rise you can estimate two or three hundred foot of horizontal movement".
DR: Can you describe for me the challenge, and I would imagine ultimately the frustration, of being an expert on such an important topic that hasn't yet quite captured the public's attention relative to it's serious and urgent nature?
JE: It is frustrating, Dana. I feel like I am seeing something that other people aren't seeing.
While a number of scientists see it, even in the scientific community a lot of people have a narrow focus looking at a particular thing. I fortunately have a broad oceanographic background and I have decided to tell the story and it took me two or three years to put all the pieces together. It's been good that, I hate to say this, but the silver lining to hurricane Sandy was that it attuned more people to what can happen at the coast and they are starting to ask questions but still, people are looking at a storm surge event. And, even though there has been a foot of sea level rise this century, we are still not appreciating the fact that this is the beginning of a whole new era for the earth, that after six thousand years of stable sea level and a pretty fixed coast line, that for the next thousand years or more that sea level rise and the coastline will move inward. That is a really changed view of the planet. It affects almost everything and it is strange to have connected the dots and been one of the first people to tell the story in language the public can understand.
The word is just beginning to get out. When people do read my book or hear an interview they are pretty stunned because it literally changes their view of the world. This is the first time that's happened to this extent literally in human civilization for six thousand years.
DR: Can you share something with me that people would find stunning about climate change and the rising sea levels? What I am getting at is, what are the very practical impacts that this will have on our daily lives if we just go on ignoring the causes and the realities and, how soon can we expect to have our daily lives impacted?
JE: Let me attack it in three ways. The first stunning fact that tends to get people's attention is to realize that sea level does change naturally and climate does change naturally. A good example is the Ice Ages. Most people don't know how recently there has been an ice age or that ice age happens on a natural cycle and a pattern. And as two miles of ice on North America and Europe, which is what an ice age brings, as that ice melts it raises the ocean.
The last time an ice age peaked was twenty thousand years ago. That sounds like a long time ago but it's really not, in geologic terms. If you think back to the Bible or the Old Testament, twenty thousand years is not that far back in terms of the earth. Twenty thousand years ago when there was two miles of ice in North America and Europe, the ocean was four hundred feet lower than today. So if you would go to the coast anywhere you would be looking down the height of a thirty-story building. Now that would be a stunning fact I think, to anybody.
DR: Wow. Yeah...
JE: What has happened is that it rose up for fourteen thousand years n an actual cycle and for the last six thousand years it was kind of leveled because it was turning the corner and by the natural cycle it would be starting down now as the earth began an eighty thousand year cooling trend. We have now changed that cycle because of the green house gases and there will not be a cooling period because our warming force has over-powered the cooling force by a factor of 80:1. So, we are in for a thousand years of warming temperature, melting ice, and as the ice melts, the ocean rises. It's really simple. Ice melts at 32 degrees. It doesn't matter what your political beliefs are...
JE: This is simple physics.
The other part of your question, how soon it could happen? The most widely expected projection says that we will have three to six feet of sea level rise a century. I actually think that's very conservative.
High Tide On Main Street
The book that described a superstorm hitting Atlantic City and New York City -- exactly one week before Sandy hit. Just one of dozens of scenarios in this amazing book. Find out the other forecasts. Getting rave reviews from experts and Amazon readers. For 6,000 years sea level has changed little. Now it it has started rising again, moving the shoreline too. In clear, easy-to-understand language, this book explains:
- The science behind sea level rise, plus the myths and partial truths used to confuse the issue.
- The surprising forces that will cause sea level to rise for 1,000 years, as well as the possibility of catastrophic rise this century.
- Why the devastating economic effects will not be limited to the coasts.
- Why coastal property values will go "underwater" long before the land does, perhaps as early as this decade.
- Five points of "intelligent adaptation" that can help individuals, businesses, and communities protect investments now and in the future.
Scientists tend to be much more conservative than the public realizes. Scientists only say things they can defend for certain because of the reputation. Like most things, projecting what happens with a virus or disease or unemployment figures or any projection of relatively simple things, climate even more so, it's hard to predict ninety years in the future. There are too many variables and there are some big unknowns in climate like how quickly the methane gas will escape from the perma-frost or the sea bed or how quickly a couple of specific glaciers, that I name in the book in Western Antarctica, will release which could have a catastrophic effect on sea level. But neither of those things are in the sea level projections because we can't predict them for sure this century.
So, the three-foot is an incredibly conservative estimate and that is the next surprising fact. And I guess the third one is when you add those things up, that sea level does move in cycles, that now we have changed the cycle, that there is enough ice on Greenland and Antarctica to raise sea level hundreds of feet, even by the current warming that we have already had, sea level will rise fifty feet or more. We just don't know how many centuries that will take. That we can't be certain of because the earth has never warmed this fast and because of that, we just need to have a new attitude and we need to realize that, for the first time in human history, the coastline is going to move inland and its going to continue to move inland and it's going to happen century after century after century and it calls for a fundamental new attitude about building near the coast...
JE: If we knew this a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, I am sure cities would not have erected giant buildings on the shoreline as if it would be permanent.
DR: One of the points that really got my attention with regard to your book was property values lowering. If you think about human beings and the fact that we are definitely creatures who don't tend to look at the long view much. People look at the short term especially when you are talking about the kinds of time frames that you are talking about - thousands of years. But the matter of property values seems like something that would go a long way in allowing people to map some relevancy of this issue onto their own self interests and their everyday lives.
JE: I think there are two things that make this have present day importance to people. You bring up a good point. I mean worrying about a hundred years from now or a thousand years from now probably doesn't matter to people, but there are two things that do matter. One is, as you say, property values and our coastal property values tend to be a premium.
Most people want to be near the water either for the view or the access to fishing or boating or being able to put a marina on a piece of property but usually just the view of course. That was based upon a misunderstanding that coastal property was as permanent as property in Colorado. We now know, and we've known for almost a hundred years, that once you look at the Ice Age cycles the shoreline moves in and out pretty substantially over twenty thousand years. But now we can see that, as the ice heaps in Greenland and Antarctica are getting into their melt mode, which is normally an eighty thousand year cycle, that they are happening at a time when they shouldn't and it's happening faster than it's ever happened before. We can now see a new reality - that the shoreline is going to move inward. So, fairly soon, and I said in the book that it could be a decade. I think hurricane Sandy may have really accelerated the time-table. People on the coast in New Jersey and other areas that were devastated by Sandy are already starting to ask how safe their property is.
I think there are people who are selling a lot cheaper than they would have sold a year ago or two months ago. I am thinking that the awareness of a possible return of Sandy is decreasing property values on the coast already but people haven't though that if you are going to buy a piece of land on the coast it's more like leasing the land for fifty or ninety years than it is owning it, where you can leave it to your kids and grandkids. That reality hasn't fully seeped in yet but I think that in a couple of years at the most, people will slowly begin to depreciate property values on the coast because it doesn't have permanence anymore.
The second thing that gets to people is, while we tend to think short term, we need to consider our grandchildren because of the affect of melting the ice sheets and saying that we can't get off of coal and we don't care about how much greenhouse gase we put up in the atmosphere. That is such an insidious long term affect to accelerate the melting, that I find that it just stops people short when you remind them that this is the legacy to their grand kids. And, they do stop and think differently. I can see it whenever I give a talk.
DR: Because it's one of the places where people can actually see that this is not about some futuristic concept. One thing I want to share John, is that, as someone living in New York, I noticed when news of Hurricane Sandy hitting started circulating, few people were taking it seriously. I think because the year before, Hurricane Irene wasn't as dramatic as predicted. I would venture to say that if we had the threat of another hurricane, because of what happened with Hurricane Sandy, people would take it very seriously. I believe that behaviors in New York City will start to change around these issues.
JE: Well first of all, going back to hurricane Irene, as you recall it was really at the critical height where it would begin to flood lower Manhattan but it just barely happened with hurricane Irene.
Hurricane Sandy was an entirely different situation with a nine and a half foot wall of water, thirteen and a half feet above low tide levels. There were four things that came together to really make the affect incredible. Again, it was fortuitous. I described this potential scenario in my book, a week before Sandy hit, so I had gotten some attention for that...
The sea levels are a foot higher in New York Harbor than it was a century ago. Second thing is that it happened at full moon; high tide. That adds another foot. Then, on top of that, we had a storm track from southeast to northwest, which is pretty unusual because of that perfect storm weather system that was developing. That pulled the storm toward the shore as opposed to going up the Atlantic and eastward as they normally do. So that piled the wall of water toward the shoreline.
And then the fourth factor, which is the reason I gave this example in the book, was that between the shoreline in New Jersey and Long Island there is a bit of a broad funnel and as that funnel directs the water toward New York Harbor it amplifies it and in that case it's further amplified by the fact that offshore of New York Harbor is a long shallow underwater plate and that plate, again as this storm surge was piling up toward New York Harbor and being narrowed by Long Island and New Jersey, it was also being lifted from the bottom. That is why the water piled up to a height of nine and a half feet above what it would have been. If that had been a category four hurricane, which was possible, it would have been a thirty-foot wall of water.
So, in the book when I mention that each plate needs to be looked at due to it's characteristics, I was also making the point that often Miami and Manhattan are lumped in together in saying that they are both vulnerable to sea level rise, but they are totally different. Miami is low lying and you really can't protect it with a sea wall. Manhattan is much higher than most people realize. It's an average of fifty-four foot elevation above see level. It goes up a couple hundred feet but even at the low spots it's a pretty good drop to the water. It's not a beach front island and you can build sea walls to protect against sea level rise. The question that a lot of people asked after Sandy was, "Should not we have protected it for storm surge?" That's pretty impractical because we had a nine and a half foot wall of water and we could've had a thirty-foot wall of water. You really can't build for unlimited storm surge. But we do need to build for sea level rise, which is a certainty, where a storm surge may or may not hit New York City again in the next hundred years.
DR: I understand. That makes sense.
I understand John that you started writing and researching your book about three or four years ago.
JE: Yes I began writing three years ago and I guess the research began a year or two before that.
DR: So this is likely going to be redundant but I don't think that any of these points can be driven home too much - When you started writing your book what was your sense of urgency versus now, particularly with hurricane Sandy and a couple of other storms that may have happened within the last three years?
JE: I studied marine geology and graduated college in 1972. When I was in college I was fascinated that sea levels moved up and down three or four hundred feet with the ice ages. Amazing. It was not even considered possible that in my lifetime we would see dramatic sea level rise because normally sea level rise happens over thousands of years. But then I had a long career in the diving business and I had an opportunity to do some things with some leading scientific experiments and missions and I was deep underwater.
When I was diving or in submarines I would see ancient beaches, two or three hundred feet underwater and I was able to estimate that any particular beach was created fifteen thousand years ago or so. And I started to keep track of ancient shorelines but again, still never thought that it would change in my lifetime.
By the early '90's when Dr. Jim Hansen from NASA and others were talking about how quickly things were warming, I started paying attention. By the late '90's I was following the signs that things were happening abnormally and very quickly in geologic time. I started struggling with what could happen and about how quickly things could happen.
I would say that it's been ten or fifteen years that I've been looking at it but it was really about four or five years ago that I was as concerned about climate changes as most experts were struggling with how do we convince people of the urgency.
I took a group of people to Greenland to look at the melting ice sheets which directly affects sea level rise and it was standing there that I suddenly realized that I had this history going back to looking at ancient sea levels, what we call "paleo sea levels", and I could string together the information. I read the scientific journals although I'm not really a research scientist but I can explain things in metaphors and language that the public understands. And that's what I thought, that there was a real opportunity to use the single issue of sea level to explain why things are different now than the natural cycles and to put time scale and magnitude or number of feet to the issue of sea level as a way of showing how things have changed, in a way that has never happened in our six thousand years of human history.
That just became a mission, to really make sure I had all the facts from all corners of the world - from Antarctica, Greenland the Arctic - I did a research dive recently and found an ancient shoreline, off Maui, two hundred feet down that dates back fifteen thousand years. I have pulled all these pieces together and wanted to weave it into a story that any educated person could read and understand without being confused. That was my mission for about three or four years now.
DR: That is really great...Can you talk about the term "Intelligent Interpretation"? What do you mean by that?
JE: I describe in the book, I think its chapter fifteen, or rather I advocate five points of intelligent adaptation. The first one is to see the big picture. If you can understand that sea level is rising in a way that is different than our entire past and you can see that it's going to rise five or ten feet on it's way up to fifty feet or more eventually over centuries, I think we will plan differently. If you know where something is headed in the long term, you can probably make better plans in the short term. It helps to see the big picture. This is not a blip. This is not going to reverse itself next century. In fact next century there is little doubt his will get worse on our current course of burning fossil fuels so, see the big picture.
Two is to realize that there is a range to the projections and if scientists say it's probably going to be three foot of rise per century and it could be six foot, that range shouldn't indicate inaccuracy any more than it does when we talk about interest rates or employment rates or number of people that will get a virus each year - all estimates have ranges. The range of sea level rise should be grounds to act, not waiting to reconcile the two extremes of the range of projection.
The third point is, as I made the example between New York and Miami being different, each location needs to be looked at in geological and topographical terms. Some places are much more vulnerable than others, which is pretty surprising because you would think that sea level would affect everywhere equally. It really doesn't. I want to help people understand the forecast for their area for the decades ahead.
The fourth thing is that we need to change some policies. It's inevitable that we are going to have to change policies about coastal flood insurance, policies about rebuilding on the coast. We need to begin adapting with different kinds of structures but we also need to stop encouraging people to build on the coast. We need to do the opposite and make sure that the financial market incentives are there, whether there be higher insurance costs or whatever. We shouldn't be encouraging people to build in harms way.
Last, and one of the reasons people are willing to build in harms way ? New Orleans was a good example where we said the Federal Government should come in and spend a few hundred billion dollars and rebuild New Orleans and of course now we are looking at many more billions to rebuild New York and the Mid-Atlantic area. I am not saying that we shouldn't do that short-term. I know that people have to recover. But, I think we need a better long term policy because there is a difference between a storm surge or a hurricane or a tornado or a tsunami hitting any one place - an event that can't be predicted for sure - vs. sea level rise which will happen as the ice melts and will put all coastal areas under water in the next century or two.
No government can afford to reimburse people to build where they know they are at risk, that it is inevitable and that the damage is permanent. We are already broke. There is no way we have the funds to rebuild when sea level rises and hurts properties all over the United States and the world. So, the expectation that we have created that the government will take care of us and rebuild is going to change when it goes from being storm damage to sea level rise and that will happen in the decades ahead.
Given our current fiscal situation I think that it will probably happen soon because we can't afford to compensate people for the damage on all coastal areas in the United States and that includes river levels, by the way. As sea level rises it just doesn't happen at the coast. Even places like Washington D.C. that is on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, the potential impact and destruction goes far inland in many places.
DR: I am just thinking about how this could dramatically and pretty quickly just change the geography of the United States just in terms of where the pockets of population concentrations are.
JE: Yes. I think that is true. And this is a mind bending challenge because it's not that the coastline is going to move a mile in pretty quickly and stop there. This is going to be a gradual, inexorable moving target which is not the way we think of the coastline now, where you have big infrastructure from harbors and ports and airports and navy bases - these things don't move easily. On top of that, as sea level rises another foot and then another foot and then another foot, it becomes the higher base upon which storm surge acts and then when you have extreme lunar high-tide like with Hurricane Sandy....
So all of these things add up. It's not just looking and saying, "Well, when sea level gets two feet high, when my kids or grand kids are adults they can plan on living in central locations far from the coast", because what rising sea level does is it raises the baseline or the platform. As a friend of mine, Ben Strauss at Climate Central likes to say,
"If you raise the basketball court a few inches, you can imagine that the point scores will pretty quickly increase."
That is kind of what we are doing with sea level rise. We are raising the basketball court floor. The next storm damage is going to have a higher base to start from and when it happens at lunar high-tide as Sandy did it's on top of that and if it hits in a place like New York City where there is a geographic vulnerability that makes it special, that just exacerbates the problem.
We are going to have a different attitude about where to locate and I think that a few more storms will begin to have that affect of having people reevaluate the risk of living on the coast and when that overlaps with the government realizing that as much as they would like to keep the public happy and pay them benefits and pay for rebuilding there is a finite amount of money. You can pay for it when it's a hurricane. You can't afford to do it when sea level has risen universally.
DR: Wow. That makes so much sense. John, tell me, a hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
JE: Wow. I think it would be that I was able to connect a lot of diverse signs into a cohesive picture about our changing coastline and explain it in such a way that the public can understand it and begin the slow process of adaptation..
Rising Seas, National Geographic's September Cover Story
National Geographic Magazine has been showing us planet Earth for 125 years, with balanced reporting, stunning photography and great graphics. The September 2013 issue is no exception.
"Rising Seas" is a terrific article. I strongly encourage you to grab one if you don't already subscribe to the print or digital versions.