The Cost of Doing Nothing, Part 2

Last time we looked at the national cost of doing nothing about climate change.  The figures are impressive, but they only go so far.  Often it helps to have a concrete example.

So today, let’s zoom in on one particular area: Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest and most biologically diverse estuary.  According to an article in the current issue of National Wildlife, sea levels in this region are rising nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world.  This, the article says, is due to two phenomena:

First, the mid-Atlantic is shrinking.  It is an echo of the last Ice Age, when huge glaciers pushed down on the Earth’s crust to the north.  The land here was lifted like the other end of a seesaw, and now it’s slowly dropping.  Second, research presented recently shows that climate change will alter the dynamics of the oean, weakening the system of currents that pulls water away from the shore here.  At the same time, the world’s oceans are inching up — fed by melting polar ice and swelled as warmer water expands in volume.

Many people dismiss rising sea levels as sensational alarmism, imagining The Day After Tomorrow – style catastrophes.  But rising oceans are already affecting coastal communities in a very real way.

The Calvert County, Maryland, shore resort of North Beach spends $25,000 dollars a year in an effort to preserve its three-block-long beach.

“It’s a money pit,” Mayor Michael Bojokles says, but crucial to the town’s tourist economy.  “That has to be said: It’s absolutely necessary.”

Even larger resorts are affected.  State, federal, and local authorities spent $7 million to deposit 100,000 dump truckloads of sand on Ocean City’s beach.  They expect that more sand will be needed next year.

It’s already too late for a few places.  The chief of shoreline conservation and management for Maryland counted at least five “beaches” whose names are now a lie.

While the nation debates whether global warming is a problem or whether it is even happening, residents of the Chesapeake area are experiencing climate change firsthand.  How could they deny something that’s happening in their own backyards?  Yet many people are doing just that, because the areas impacted by climate change are in all of our ecological “backyards.”

And the impacts we’re seeing now are relatively small.  Melting of the current Greenland ice sheet would result in a sea level rise of about 6.5 meters.  The West Antarctic ice sheet — which is especially vulnerable, due to its position below sea level — would cause sea levels to 8 meters if it melted.

tbl1If a sea level rise of less than an inch per year is hurting coastal economies, imagine how much trouble a more dramatic rise would cause.  If you include the impact on wildlife, the cost is even greater.  The habitat of diamondback terrapins and brown pelicans, for instance, could be inundated.

It’s not too late to save the Chesapeake, or any other area from the effects of climate change.  But we have to act now; the time for a policy of delaying and denying has passed.


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