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Description: Richmond needs to start paying attention to rising sea levels
Date: 23 November 2006
Author: Mitchell Anderson
Source: Georgia Straight
Feeling wet? Get used to it.

The storms battering the B.C. coast this fall are a small taste of what our climate-altered future has in store for us. And although scientists have been steadily churning out increasingly troubling predictions about our changing climate, it seems that our development-minded politicians have had little time to read them.

This is leaving parts of the Lower Mainland woefully unprepared for the one-two punch of increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels.

A case in point: the city of Richmond and the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu both have an average elevation of only one perilous metre above sea level. Scientists are predicting eventual worldwide sea-level increases of more than seven metres. The government of Tuvalu is so alarmed by this that they have negotiated an arrangement with New Zealand to evacuate some of their population as their country disappears under the waves.

You certainly don’t hear about any plans to evacuate Richmond. In fact, nowhere in Richmond’s official community plan does the phrase sea level make an appearance.

The only reference to climate change is a commitment to ”continue to monitor environmental trends and adjust city policies and programs as required“. This document was last amended in 1999.

However, there are signs that this elephant in the room is attracting some notice. A recent city-staff report to Richmond city council cited the need to amend Richmond’s flood-protection management strategy, which dates back to 1989.

The report appears to be the first effort to include climate change in city planning and assumes that sea levels will rise 35 centimetres by the next century. However, the authors also note that Canadian government researchers estimate that there is now a ”high confidence“ that the world’s oceans will rise by almost double that amount by 2100.

The challenge facing low-lying municipalities such as Richmond illustrates the implications of our changing climate and how many impacts will be felt very close to home.

In the past few years, climate scientists have drastically increased the predicted sea-level rises caused by climate change. Rising waters are due to both the thermal expansion of the world’s oceans as they warm and the release of massive amounts of water from melting ice sheets.

A recent NASA analysis of data from its GRACE satellite shows that Greenland’s ancient and massive frozen storehouse of water is pouring into the ocean faster than anyone anticipated, leading to predictions of an eventual long-term sea-level rise of almost seven metres from melting Greenland ice alone. Although it is highly unlikely that sea levels would rise that much in the near future, the long-term trend is very bad news for low-lying areas throughout the world, including Richmond.

So why haven’t these startling findings found their way into Richmond’s urban planning? One possible explanation is the blistering pace of growth in the city. Housing starts in the city increased by a record 40 percent between 2004 and 2005. The total value of building construction for permits issued in 2005 hit an unprecedented $499 million.

Richmond now has a population of more than 180,000, with a growth rate of four percent over the past two years. With that kind of increase, who wants to hear about a coming deluge?

If anyone is wondering, climate experts are clear on the local implications of rising sea levels. In a phone interview from Ottawa, James Bruce, a former Environment Canada scientist and expert on climate change, described Richmond as ”a disaster waiting to happenĦwithin 50 years, [rising sea levels in Richmond are] going to be a very significant problem.

”Our best estimates are that sea levels have been rising by about three centimetres in the last decade, and it seems to have accelerated in the last decade. That suggests that sea level might go up by somewhere between 20 and 40 centimetres by 2050.“

According to Bruce, even that projection may be overly optimistic. ”Some people think that is a very conservative estimate and that the recent evidence of more rapid melting of the ice in Greenland, for example, suggests that we might well exceed those figuresĦ“

It is important to remember that Richmond is not in the open ocean like Tuvalu and is not currently threatened by tropical cyclones. Low-lying areas such as Richmond are not one day simply under water due to rising oceans—the ?initial threat comes first from storm surges like the one that overtopped levees in New Orleans with tragic results. That makes increased storm activity and rising sea levels a deadly pairing, and something we should be keenly aware of here in B.C.

Last fall, about 200 waterfront homes in South Delta were damaged when a vicious storm breached the berm in front of the structures, causing more than $2 million in damage. The recent storms drenching the coast and flooding the Fraser Valley are a further sign of things to come.

A recent study out of the University of Washington shows that winter storms in the Pacific Northwest are predicted to dump 15 percent more precipitation on the B.C. coast by the end of the century.

”The atmosphere becomes more energetic because of climate change. It’s not just the temperature increase, but the increased temperature drives a more vigorous circulation,“ Eric Salathé, a scientist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Oceans (which published the study last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters), stated in a release.

That is bad news for B.C., Salathé noted ominously: ”Alaska will really get it—Alaska and the British Columbia coast.“

Bruce agreed. ”Winter storm activity has been increasing in the northern hemisphere for the last 30 to 40 years. That means that you could get quite significant storm surges on top of that rising sea. The evidence is very strong that wave heights have risen significantly in the Pacific and the Atlantic as the climate was warmed in the last 40 years.“

Given all that, Bruce feels, ”You have a scenario that could easily give you problems in Richmond fairly frequently by 2050.“

Is there anything from an engineering point of view that will solve this problem in the long term? ”No,“ said Hadi Dowlatabadi, a Vancouver-based Canada Research Chair in global change at UBC and an expert on the impacts of climate change. ”Not really. Not forever—unless we stop climate change in its tracks.“ He believes that in the long term, overreliance on engineering solutions such as sea walls can make the daunting situation like the one facing Richmond even worse.

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