Do you remember back in 2009, when the national cabinet for the island country of Maldives held their meeting underwater?
The president and all his officials donned scuba gear and used white boards and hand signals to convene their meeting in the lovely blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Why did they pull this P.R. stunt? To draw attention to rising sea levels which threaten their entire country.
The average elevation in the Maldives is just six feet above sea level and predictions are for sea levels to rise four to seven feet by 2050 due to climate change. Imagine having your country’s existence threatened by a problem that is not even homegrown!
The USA, China, India and Europe are all sending greenhouse gases up to the ozone layer, warming the seas and causing the water level to rise, but small island countries like the Maldives will pay the price.
Rising sea levels are expected if the earth continues to warm up. The most obvious problem will be that massive glaciers, ice sheets and icebergs at the two poles will melt and become part of the sea.
Normally, at least some of the icebergs and most of the glaciers sit above the sea level. But if they melt, they will obviously become liquid. Water will always find its level and the extra water will spread around the world, raising the sea level everywhere.
Another issue is the “expanding” water in the oceans. I was confused about this term, but doing a little research I learned what I already knew: water molecules expand when they get warmer. We have all seen it when we put on a pot of water for pasta, walk out of the kitchen for a moment, and come back to find the pot boiling over. This is because as water is heated up, the increased temperature causes the molecules to become physically larger, as well as more active.
In terms of sea water, even if we do not add one more drop of water to the ocean, when the existing molecules get warmer and expand, the same amount of water will take up more space. And the sea level will rise.
In 2016, my husband and I signed up for assignments with Peace Corps Response Volunteers working in Georgetown, Guyana in South America. Georgetown is on the Atlantic coast and sits approximately six feet below sea level. It has a complicated system of narrow drainage canals running through the town, emptying into the sea. Instead of a beach, Georgetown has a sea wall which usually protects the city from the tides. In fact, most of low-lying Guyana has a sea wall, built in 1874, that follows 280 miles of coastline. Because Georgetown was built in a wetland, there is always a lot of water that needs to be managed and this is done through the use of massive “cokers” or floodgates. At low tide, the cokers are raised to allow the fresh water to drain out into the ocean. At high tide the cokers are lowered to prevent the salt water from coming into the city. This works pretty well most of the time.
However, when a high tide coincides with a strong rain, the streets are flooded, the canals overflow and traffic comes to a halt on all but the most elevated roads. Several times I found myself walking home half a mile through knee deep water because there was no other way.
I can see you now, reading this, shaking your head and thinking what a backward place Georgetown must be. However, I would argue that they are forward and we are backward, because at least they have a sea wall and cokers. They have a plan. We’ve got nothing!
If the sea levels really do rise four to seven feet by 2050, here is a partial list of cities that should be investing in sea walls now: New York City, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Galveston, Honolulu, Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Pensacola, Jacksonville, New Orleans, London, Copenhagen, Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, Venice, Amsterdam, Singapore, Cape Town, Casa Blanca, etc., etc.
If sea levels rise, lovely beaches around the world will be swallowed up and island nations, such as the Maldives, might disappear completely.
There is a famous, possibly fictitious, science experiment whereby a live frog is put into a pot of water. If the water were already hot when you threw the frog in, it would immediately try to escape the excessive heat. But if you gradually increase the heat, the frog doesn’t notice that it is being boiled alive. It never tries to escape.
In our case, we are the frog and climate change is the water. As the conditions get gradually worse and worse, we don’t even notice. We are day-dreaming about lily pads instead of trying to save ourselves.
Are we going to be boiled alive with dreamy smiles on our faces? Or are we going to do something?
Kathryn Hunter is from McMinn County and holds a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Idaho and a Master of Forestry from Yale University. She has worked with the USDA Forest Service locally as well as living and working in natural resource management and protected area conservation in eight foreign countries.