‘Sea level rise is unstoppable’: Oceanographer John Englander talks rising tide, melting ice, Hampton Roads

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John Englander speaks at the Virginia Aquarium
Oceanographer John Englander speaking at the Virginia Aquarium Sunday. (Justin Belichis)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Virginia Beach has experienced a 30-inch sea level rise in the last century, according to author and oceanographer John Englander.

Rather than liken himself to an educator, Englander says he’s more of a doctor, who has to deliver bad news to his patients and help them rebound by exploring how to overcome their condition.

Except instead of a life-threatening disease, he’s talking about the Earth’s melting ice and warming climate.

His 2012 book, “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis,” explores the science behind sea level rise, the impacts it could have on the economy and how coastal communities can adapt to the inevitable change.

Englander translated the book’s pages into an hour-long lecture at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s National Geographic 3D theater Sunday afternoon. Southside Daily chatted with him beforehand to look closer at sea level rise, and how it will affect Hampton Roads.

In Virginia Beach, is sea level rise a matter of “if” or “when?”

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and the fact is the when has already started here. This area of Hampton Roads is subsiding because of a plate tectonic issue, which is unusual, and so it’s had more sea level rise than most places in the United States. Hampton Roads has seen about 30 inches of sea level rise in the last century.

The flooding here is most noticeable during a full moon high tide certain days of the year. Everybody here is aware of flooding, much more so than even Miami. In terms of the Hampton Roads area, it is definitely when, not if. It is now unstoppable.

So the question is, how do we adapt and how do we understand the magnitude of what’s facing us? Because what’s going to happen in the future is much different than the past, and start planning for it.”

What do you mean it’s unstoppable?

“We built up on the coast all over the world … literally every coastal area in the world has been built up. So that makes them more vulnerable.

The reason that sea level rise is unstoppable is because ice is melting in Greenland and Antarctica, and those two places have hundreds of feet of sea level stored up in them. If we do the right thing and slow the warming and get serious about dealing with greenhouse gasses and what’s warming the atmosphere, we can turn this around eventually. Not immediately.

The more we put green house gasses up in the air, which trap heat just like a sheet of glass in a greenhouse, we’re going to have a warmer planet. A warmer planet is going to have less ice. If there’s less ice, there’s going to be a higher sea level, and if there’s higher sea level the shoreline is going to try to move inland. It’s really simple.”

Should we be panicking?

“We should be taking it very seriously and planning for this new reality. It’s going to happen slowly, it can’t happen overnight. So here’s the dilemma, you don’t want to say ‘panic’ for something that’s going to happen over thirty years. We have other things to worry about tomorrow.

But if we keep putting it off, and not worrying about it we’re never going to get anywhere. The truth is, ironically, that if we recognize that sea level is going to be a meter or two meters higher, we could start designing for it now, and do a fairly painless transition.

We’ll still have to give up places like Miami beach and parts of Virginia Beach, but over the next 50 or 100 years we can do that. So there’s no need to panic, but the tendency to say ‘oh I don’t have to worry about that, my kids will worry about that,’ is dumb.

It’s not a matter of if it will happen, or when or where. It’s going to happen all over the world. We have trouble processing that because it hasn’t happened in our human experience.”

What can coastal communities do to prepare for sea level rise?

“I think it has to happen in several levels. The governmental level is that we should reduce greenhouse gasses and there should be economic way that encourage us to do that, like pricing carbon. If we taxed greenhouse gas emissions at the source, we would over the next 30 years get off fossil fuels.

But regardless if we do that or not, we’re going to have sea level rise. In addition to that, we should start educating people. When people realize this is unstoppable, and it’s going to happen over the next decades, then we’re going to start building higher, support zoning changes, support elevated roads, mass transit and public utilities in preparing for the future.

You could support that at a municipal level and say ‘we should be planning for the future, so that we have a community here, even if we have to give up some land. On a personal level, I think if people understand the problem better, and without the confusion or politics … once you see it clearly, you’re frankly never going to be the same.

It’s as simple as ice melting at 32 degrees. This isn’t something we can change. Technology isn’t going to change the melting point of ice — it’s not possible. Sea level rise isn’t an environmental issue, it’s a real-estate issue. The fact is if the ocean gets taller and it moves inland, does it affect the fish or the people who live on land?

It affects the people who live on land.”

Follow Justin on Twitter @Justinbmmj or contact him at Justin@southsidedaily.com