A 68-year-old Dutch man with an impossibly long name and a small dog is walking along the edge of a new lake when he stops and points upward.
“Naturally, the water would be up there, you know,” says Erik van Tienhoven van Weezel, pointing at an invisible spot about 10 feet above his head. “We live under the sea level, by quite a bit. And we know the water is a little higher each year. Do we lose sleep over what could happen if the dikes break? Do we worry about how we will survive as the climate gets warmer and the sea gets even higher? No. We have adapted for centuries. We will continue to adapt.”
As far as Dutch adaptation to rising water goes, van Tienhoven van Weezel is at ground zero. Almere, a city of 190,000, used to be covered by the Zuiderzee, a well-known bay of the North Sea that once cut a 60-mile hole out of the northern part of the Netherlands. But the Netherlands has been using windmills and dikes and a network of canals for centuries to expand the tiny nation into the often violent sea, and the Zuiderzee is now dry land. About 15 percent of the Netherlands used to be covered by ocean waters; Almere is an example of Dutch success.
And that lesson, say European climatologists, is an important one for the United States, where studies indicate that large areas of coastal cities such as Miami are likely to disappear under rising seawaters —not in centuries, but in decades. The key, they say, is for U.S. politicians to stop debating the cause of sea level rise and start planning and funding the works that can stave it off.
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“Adapt or die,” says the T-shirt of a man walking through Almere’s town square. The initials NAP are bricked into a nearby staircase, marking where the Normal Amsterdam Peil, or normal Amsterdam water level, would be, way above his head, were it not for the pumps and dikes that hold back the sea.
In Potsdam, Germany, climate scientist Anders Levermann is chatting about how the world will change in a future of rising seas when he is asked about Miami.
“Miami? Miami is already doomed,” he says.
The sea level expert at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research pauses, then starts to correct himself. “That’s probably not fair,” he says. “Miami is, ah … No, it’s just doomed.”
Among climate scientists, Miami has earned the nickname “New Atlantis,” a reference to the legendary lost continent that slipped below the sea. But Miami is hardly alone among at-risk cities. A World Bank study listed it second among cities facing a risk of “overall cost of damage.” It trailed only Guangzhou in southern China, and it’s expected to fare only a bit better than New York and New Orleans.
The list of cities facing issues over the next 100 years rings the United States. An interactive map on the website of the U.S. climate scientist group Climate Central gives an idea of what might be in store over the next 100 years.
South Carolina, for example, would see a sea level rise of 4 feet within 100 years. Hilton Head Island would be further isolated. The Waccamaw River would spread out, leaving southern Myrtle Beach as a peninsula. Texas might see a 3-foot rise before the end of this century, flooding sections of Galveston and other coastal lowlands.
In Miami, the sea is expected to rise a foot perhaps as soon as 2040, and reach 5 feet as early as 2080. At that point, the water starts taking over low-lying areas along the Miami River. Within 100 years, it could wash over most of Miami Beach and start swamping neighborhoods along the river.
Such increases are further off on the West Coast, though not by much.
Too far in the future to take seriously? The Dutch have already approved spending a billion dollars a year for the next 100 years to deal with the threat of the sea.
“This is not a time, yet, for panic,” Levermann says. “This is, however, a time to be making plans, for deciding what we are going to do to protect people and cities and nations around the world from the rising water. We do have options. But we need to be making plans.”
Unfortunately, in the United States, there is no central planning or discussion of how to cope with such sea level rise. People are too busy arguing about whether water levels are actually rising and what is causing it, though the science is pretty much settled. Sea levels are going up.
Asked whether the United States has a plan for how to deal with rising seas, Ernesta Jones, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an email: “The short answer is no. There is no national program (or EPA program) or overall plan to decide what places will be protected using which techniques, or … decide which will not be protected.”
Levermann and others say that is a mistake, even if you aren’t a believer that global warming is a man-made phenomenon. They liken it to the idea of buying door locks, alarms and other anti-burglary defenses for a home. Nobody does this with definite knowledge that their home will be burglarized. Instead, these things are purchased and installed in the hopes that a home can avoid or thwart burglars.
“We can protect ourselves against sea level rise, if we aren’t stupid, if we don’t deny there is a problem and if we take this problem seriously,” Levermann says. “All coastal cities are threatened.”
But that doesn’t mean that any coastal cities are doomed. Half of the Netherlands exists below sea level. The nation has thrived for hundreds of years because of what the Dutch call “water defenses.”
Paul Olsen, a sea level expert at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, is running a program that’s looking at how the United States can adapt. He emphasizes that while the water is rising, there are options. Current U.S. strategies, he says, are “fledgling.”
“They don’t have the funding or the national attention that’s needed,” he says. “I don’t think we’re ignoring it. We’ve had other priorities. We’ve focused on terrorism, and al Qaida and ISIL (the Islamic State). These are the wolves that are closest to the sled. Sea level rise? That wolf is a long ways away. But he is coming.”
Olsen says there is no simple and one-size-fits-all solution to the problems that sea level rise will bring. There is no way the United States will be able to surround all of its cities with sea walls.
“The United States is just too big. There’s too much coastline,” he says. The U.S. has about 12,000 miles of ocean and sea coastline. By comparison, the Netherlands protects 270 miles of seacoast.
The American reality is that some cities will probably be sacrificed. Parts of cities certainly will be sacrificed.
“The U.S. coasts will look very different in 50 years,” Olsen says. “We’re going to have to learn to be like Venice, to learn to live with water.”
More land will be returned to wetlands, he predicts. Cities will move to higher ground and abandon neighborhoods in lowlands. People who elect to stay on the coast will have to adapt their homes for high water.
“You may have to defend a harbor, if a community relies on shipping or fishing. But do the fishermen need to live next to the harbor?” he says. “No. So maybe you defend the harbor and roads to that harbor, but you don’t have to save the neighborhoods in low-lying areas. If a community relies on the tourism attracted by its beaches, they may have to modify and save their beaches and access to the beaches. But sacrifices will have to be made.”
The solution will rely on an overarching federal plan — one that does not yet exist — but also on local and state planning. Coastal cities, he believes, have four options: Defend, adapt, retreat and avoid.
“Defend” means sea walls, keeping the sea out. The Dutch approach. “Adapt” means creative thinking, raising buildings, raising neighborhoods, living with canals. This is Venice. “Retreat” is simply heading inland. Already, on a small scale, Alaskan Inuit tribes are employing this strategy. They don’t have the means to keep the sea at bay, so they take advantage of one of the great advantages of the United States: lots of higher ground. “Avoid” is simply making sure that new construction, roads, sewer and water systems are built with sea level rise in mind.
Incredible things are possible. Consider the lake surrounding Almere. It is a freshwater lake, separated from the North Sea by a 16-mile-long dike, one that was built into the sea. Elsewhere, Dutch water defenses include robotic dams that move into place only when needed, and that rise and fall with the water to protect the nation during storms. These defenses are the result of centuries of practice, and they have taken decades to plan and years to construct.
While no plan exists in general for the United States, the federal government has been readying a plan for dealing with its own properties, according to Kate White, an Army Corps of Engineers civil engineer specializing in climate change issues. A plan for how the government should react to sea level rise is nearing completion.
Federal agencies for the past several years have been “assessing their own exposure to climate change, dealing with everything from the changes in snowmelt to sea level rise.” One precaution: The federal government is no longer building in floodplains.
Of 5,000 existing construction projects, reviewers determined that 1,400 were likely to be affected by sea level rise. Of those, they “determined 100 that were in high or very high impact zones. In a couple years, we will have recommendations from that list. At that point we will be able to say what is possible.”
She says that given the early stage of all such planning, she isn’t able to release a list of the projects, but the ways the risks will be dealt with will likely encompass a range of solutions: construction of sea walls and pumping systems, changes of policy and the incorporation of natural features, such as mangroves and coastal wetlands.
To understand how completely a nation can commit to this sort of project, consider the Netherlands. The Dutch have been fighting to hold back the water since the end of the Iron Age, 3,000 years ago.
In the 1700s, a wood-eating mollusk started destroying Dutch dikes at an astonishing rate, so the dikes were converted to stone and clay. Windmills churned night and day to pump out excess water. As land was recaptured, it became a patchwork of fertile fields and canals for drainage. It even fed the global image of the nation, most famously in Mary Mapes Dodge’s story of the Little Dutch Boy, who plugged a leaking dike with his finger.
That system held the nation together until 1953, when rising seas and flooding rivers led to bursting dikes and a flood that submerged half the country and left 1,800 dead.
The dikes were rebuilt, stronger and bigger. Today the Netherlands spends almost 0.2 percent of its annual economic output — about $1.1 billion — on what it calls “water defense.” Converting that to an equivalent American amount would be about $35 billion a year. For comparison, that’s about 6 percent of the 2015 U.S. defense budget of $560 billion.
“What we, the Dutch, are doing is quite rational,” says Jarl Kind, a water economist for the Dutch Delta Commission, which oversees keeping the nation dry. “There are two ways to deal with the threat of floods: Wait for the floods and repair what is lost. Or build an infrastructure to mitigate flood damage. Given what we could lose, it’s not a lot of money to spend.”
The U.S. economy, of course, is much bigger — and the potential losses are, too. A 2014 report on the economic risks of sea level rise chaired by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. warned that by 2050 as much as $106 billion worth of coastal property could be underwater. By 2100, flooding would have reclaimed another $507 billion worth of property, with another $730 billion in property under threat during high tides.
The U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out a fact sheet saying U.S. businesses along the “coast produce 45 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.” In 2015, for instance, that would have meant $8.3 trillion of production would have been in threatened areas.
“Our legal and political systems are built for a world in which sea levels and property and land are constants,” says Ben Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impacts at Climate Central. “We are entering an age where they are not.”
In Almere, Gennil Dijkink, 60, explains that once climate change is accepted as reality — and there is no debate here — getting around to the business of adapting and living with the water only makes sense.
“My house is below the water level,” he says. “In fact, I’m only about a kilometer away from a dike. If it broke, I am dead. But I sleep very comfortably at night. We have a saying here: As the water rises, so must the dikes. It’s quite simple, really.”
Olsen, at Old Dominion University, thinks it won’t be long before sea level rise becomes a U.S. national priority. Too much is at stake for it to be put on a back burner for long. Unlike Levermann, he does not think Miami is lost. There’s too much at risk. Buildings will be lifted, neighborhoods will be walled, beaches will somehow be saved. Canals will crisscross the area.
“Miami will find a solution. I am confident of this,” he says. “I’m more worried about poorer, less organized coastal communities. Coastal cities are all at risk, and many won’t have the investment needed for creative solutions.”