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Basic Physics

Andy Koenigsberg

Jul 6, 2016

In basic physics you learn about inertia and momentum – objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects that are moving tend to stay moving. It’s like when you try to push a car in neutral gear. It’s really hard to get the car going but you don’t want to be in front of it when it’s finally moving.

Although the physics is not the same, the Earth’s climate can also be described using these same two concepts from Newtonian mechanics. By increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 42 percent in less than two centuries, we have applied a very strong push to the Earth’s climate unprecedented in the geologic record since the extinction of the dinosaurs and we are only now starting to see it shifting. That extra CO2 will be there for the next millennium.

We cannot take that push back, so we will have to adapt and that is not going to be easy. In this country, there are already climate refugees.

In Louisiana, a small community of 60 Native Americans are going to be relocated because the bayous they have lived in for generations are being swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi delta is not a perfect example of the impacts of sea level rise – the reasons for the disappearance of the delta are many, but sea level rise is among them. Regardless, relocating this Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw settlement will cost $48 million of our tax dollars.

In Alaska, the Inupiat village of Shishmaref voted to move their village 10 years ago as powerful winter storms eroded the melting permafrost out from underneath their homes. They are still trying to get it done a decade later.

We are no stranger to the effects of a rising ocean here in Massachusetts. Cape Cod is a relic of the ice age, a huge jumble of silt, sand, gravel, and boulders that define the furthest extent of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that once covered New England.

The Cape has always been reshaped by waves and storms, but now, rising sea levels are accelerating changes to this ephemeral landscape of shifting sands. The parking lot at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown is being destroyed as the ocean pushes inland and the National Park Service is embarking on a program called “managed retreat” to start relocating facilities on public lands further away from the ocean all around the Cape.

Quoting Professor of Law Michael Gerrard, in a recent article in the New York Times: “It reflects a sound planning approach that is regrettably uncommon so far. As sea-level rise advances [managed retreat] is going to become increasingly important in large parts of the country.” It’s also going to be very expensive. Just moving the Herring Cove Beach parking lot is going to cost $3 million.

Moving a parking lot is child’s play compared to other areas of the US.

I was once chided by a climate change denier who asked me why people in Florida were not retreating from their coast lines. They are not retreating yet but it’s getting increasingly more expensive to stay there.

According to an article in the Guardian, “Miami Beach is spending $400 million to raise roads and install pumps to drain streets that experience regularly flooding at high-tide – and to prevent salt water from contaminating fresh water storage inland, ” because sea level is expected to be almost 3 feet higher by mid-century.

Even those expenditures will be dwarfed by the value of real estate that, according to NOAA, will be underwater by mid-century. In Coral Gables, 10 percent of the homes, worth $3 billion, will be flooded permanently.

Florida is in tough shape for a couple of reasons. First, it is composed of porous limestone so rising seas will come up from below, rendering sea walls ineffective. Second, large parts of the state are within 10 feet of sea level. Third, Governor Rick Scott won’t allow his own state environmental officials to utter the phrase “global warming”.

Now, we are a first world country and the impending impacts of sea level rise alone are presenting daunting prospects for adaptation. Imagine if you are a third world country like Bangladesh where tens of millions of desperately poor people live within 10 feet of sea level and ocean storms can flood as far as 120 miles inland.

According to the above mentioned Guardian article, Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach will be flooded 210 days per year by 2045.

The impacts of global warming do not, and will not, respect socio-economic status or wealth.

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