Where is Sea Level Rise Most Rapid? Today Congress Heard the Answer: North America

, senior climate scientist | August 1, 2012, 2:39 pm EDT
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Today members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) were presented with a figure illustrating that the Gulf Coast and U.S. East Coast experienced the fastest pace of sea level rise compared to nearly all the rest of the coasts around the world from 1955 to 2003. I was struck by the vigorous discussion around the graphs, which were presented by my colleague Dr. James McCarthy and others before a full committee hearing entitled “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.”

This hearing kicked off with the latest climate science during the first panel with Dr. Christopher Field, Dr. John Christy, and Dr. James McCarthy. Topics included surface temperature trends, extreme weather events, sea level rise, and the ocean’s role in these patterns.

Figure used during August 1, 2012 hearing before U.S. Senate EPW

The Gulf Coast and U.S. East Coast experienced some of the fastest rates of sea level rise between 1955 and 2003. Source: Figure 15 from written testimony by James J. McCarthy submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works based on Milne, 2008. Astronomy and Geophysics.

Ocean, Ocean, Ocean!

I am reminded of the old real estate adage, “location, location, location!” With climate it could be “ocean, ocean, ocean!”  Many of the topics raised during today’s hearing can be traced back to the ocean including weather patterns over a season and sea level rise.

Take a look at Dr. McCarthy’s written testimony for a richer discussion of how critical the ocean is to our daily lives.  For example, it buffers us “landlubbers” where we live from the full brunt of climate change as oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess heat over the past half century.

Another example is the figure presented today from a paper by Glenn Milne that examined the pace of sea level rise between 1955 and 2003 from warming. This image may come as a surprise to many living along the Gulf of Mexico or North Atlantic Ocean coasts of North America. But this fact is familiar to Broward County in southern Florida, where the publication for this figure is included among key resources for local city and Broward county officials grappling with how to protect their communities from accelerated sea level rise.

The second panel of the hearing today explores ways to adapt to climate change.  Are there some adaptation choices that are so costly that slowing the pace of climate change may be a less expensive option?  Mitigation can help reduce adaptation costs by giving a little more time for communities to invest in locally available climate-resilient options.

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