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The Rise in Sea Level Cannot be Stopped Over the Next Several Hundred Years

Say goodbye to Tuvalu, because, according to climate scientists, the raising sea levels cannot be stopped over the next several hundred years, even if we made drastic cuts to emissions today:

... even if the most ambitious emissions cuts are made, it might not be enough to stop sea levels rising due to the thermal expansion of sea water, said scientists at the United States' National Centre for Atmospheric Research, U.S. research organisation Climate Central and Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research in Melbourne.

"Even with aggressive mitigation measures that limit global warming to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial values by 2100, and with decreases of global temperature in the 22nd and 23rd centuries ... sea level continues to rise after 2100," they said in the journal Nature Climate Change.

This is because as warmer temperatures penetrate deep into the sea, the water warms and expands as the heat mixes through different ocean regions.

Even if global average temperatures fall and the surface layer of the sea cools, heat would still be mixed down into the deeper layers of the ocean, causing continued rises in sea levels.

Link (Photo: Shutterstock)

You know what we can do to solve this problem? Simply outlaw the rise in sea level just like what North Carolina did. Problem solved!


I live in the middle of the country (UK) on high ground. Don't come swimming to me for help in 100 years' time!

Personally I think that there is a zero per cent chance that enough countries will come together to do what's needed to reverse or reduce climate change. History says no, that's not what we're good at (super-long-term planning). We don't like fixing things BEFORE they are broken. What we ARE good at is reacting and adapting to a crisis, so I'm resigned to the fact that we'll wait and see what happens, and if the worst does happen we'll try to do something to reduce the impact of any catastrophe.

I will watch the wildfire burning of the US landscape with interest, and meanwhile here in the UK it's been raining for months and more rain is forecast... forever. All good fun.
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@Seban, The climate models you're referencing are statistical models, not models of the physical system. Of course they fit the data from 1900 to 2000, that's what the regression is for. You wouldn't publish until they did match. The question is: using that model, did the data from 2010 match what the model predicted?

No, it didn't. Temperature data from 2010 was significantly lower than what the model would have forecast.

The great thing about being a meteorologist is that you're uniquely qualified to know why you were wrong. Every day, you get incontrovertible proof of whether (pun not intended, but Heh) your prediction was right or wrong. Then you can go back to the charts and models you used the previous day and try to figure out what you missed.

That's the process that needs to be happening in climatology. Part of the problem is that they use so many analogues, stand-ins, etc, each of which is a scientifically debatable premise on its own, that in the end you have a house of cards, and when the future doesn't match the model, the tie between the model and the physical system is so tenuous that you can't work backwards to identify why the model was wrong.

Another part of the problem is that the sampling rate for significant data is decades. You can't just add 2011's data to the 1900 to 2010 dataset and whee, look how the 2100 temperature forecast flies. You don't know if it's an outlier, or 2005 to 2010 were the outliers. So, that's the crux of my criticism: necessarily, it takes so long to figure out that you were wrong (and in science, you're always wrong... it's just a matter of figuring out which way you're wrong and by how much) that the field matures very slowly. You make a model as a post-doc in your 30s, you get solid data to show your error by your 50s, and your grad students are working are trying to salvage what they can from your model as you supervise in your 60s. Luckily, they have a thousand times as much computing power as you did back then. Unfortunately, that also means that it takes twenty years to identify the quacks and even longer to flush them out because they are doing to cling to their meal-ticket for as long as they can.

But you (outside of the field) and I (who left the field) aren't hearing the explanations of the errors. We get the pearl-clutching forecast of impending doom, but we're not getting the confident mea culpa that explains how the last prediction was off, and how that now informs the new model that matches current data and we'll see how it pans out in ten years.

"The Earth doesn’t belong to us." Who's this 'us', pale-face? The Earth certainly belongs to me, my children, my family, and anyone else that wants to take ownership of this slime-covered rock ball. Nobody cares, truly cares, about something unless they're invested in it. This planet is here for me to use, and if I want to continue using it, I had better take ownership of the fact that I can't use it up. The answer is not to stop using it.

Luckily, the free market is here to save us. US CO2 emission levels have dropped to their 1991 levels. (http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/pdf/sec12_3.pdf) You know what drove that? Shale gas. Gas powered power plants now equal the output of coal fired power plants. For equivalent output, gas plants produce 40% less carbon. By driving the cost of gas down, we can afford to stop using the dirtier coal power source. To the extent that CO2 emissions are a factor in the changing climate (inarguably a factor; arguable as to the magnitude of the effect) that's the way to go. Eventually, someone will work out how to use coal in a cleaner manner, perhaps a fluidized coal turbine or something like that.

In any event, we are still going to have to Man Up And Deal With It. When your feet get wet, move, idiot. If the NCAR research is right, there's nothing the species can do but ride it out. Well, nothing ethical that can be done. Starting a land war in Asia and wiping out a couple billion people would have enormous long term CO2 emission reduction implications, but that's not ethical.
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@Tirno
Your first paragraph isn't encouraging. If it needs hundreds of years to stop, then it must have started hundreds of years ago? That is an absolute non-sequitur. But coincidentally, it does work actually: they say mitigation will take a hundred years to have any effect, and the start of the industrial revolution was one hundred years ago. So using the retarded argument of symmetry, here is evidence for anthropogenic climate change!

Yes, the climate has always been a dynamical system. Everybody knows that. The difference this time is the rate of change, which is very quick compared to other such events. And the fact that what is causing this rapid change is very possibly us humans. So we can just ignore it, yes, but that would be slightly irresponsible. The Earth doesn't belong to us.

As for climate models, even if the code itself isn't peer-reviewed, the way in which the are validated is if they reproduce the past climate accurately. This is something that can be checked against data. So if a model, however badly written, produces valid graphs for the period 1900 - 2000, we can hope that it will also work beyond that. And any climate research always uses multiple models, and although there are differences in the numbers, the trends that all these models produce are the same.

Then you criticize the "scientists" whose method is to call journalists to announce their results. I don't know who you are talking about, but it's certainly not the authors of the cited article. That was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change.

And to complete the irony, then you cite the example of the ice-age craze of the 70s as an example of the unreliability of climatology. Here's the punchline: That was the media craze you're complaining about. It was all based on a TIME article, while a vast majority of articles in peer-reviewed papers predicted warming caused by CO2.
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Consider their argument: anything we do will take hundreds of years to start taking effect. Taking their argument at face value, the opposite position also hold true: what led to this started hundreds of years ago. Before mankind was industrialized, unless you want to count the enormous pall of smoke that came from the cook-fires of the native American tribes before the plague came along that wipe out 90% of them.

The realistic position is that there has ALWAYS been climate change. The climate that was recorded when climatological records began (at whatever location you care to choose) is not the one, true authentic climate for that location, no more than you can define authentic American tradition as "something that happened to a Baby Boomer twice". In the long term, the climate WILL change, even if human input into the equation is completely eliminated. In geological time scales, climate flickers like a strobe light.

@Wordygrrl, @Seban, you know why I stopped being a weather forecaster, particularly for the government, the least efficient implementer of any system? The public face of the field is NOT SCIENTIFIC, or at least, is not publicly forthcoming with the limitations of the discipline. We're talking about a physical system that is huge, with 10^ BIG NUMBER in the terms all over the place. In addition to the absolutely horrific coding practices, the equivalent of taking measurements with an instrument that you don't know how it works, there are important terms that we know are major factors in the equations, and they are not modeled. Nobody peer reviews the computer code that is supposed the be derived from the equations based on physical laws. You know who would be qualified to academically peer review the code? Computer scientists, but I fear we would kill them all with either laughter or soul-crushing sorrow.

Too frequently, important factors like "how much water vapor can be expected to evaporate from the surface and enter the surface atmospheric layer" are completely hand-waved, replaced with some kind of regression calculated then hand-massaged scalar value that is supposed to apply across the landscape. We know farmland will inject different moisture values and have different albedo and heating effects vs forest vs city vs suburban vs scrubland vs marsh and these will change rom dayt to day based on recent rainfall, cloud cover, insolation, etceteras, but these effects are not modelled. Some static value (and if we're lucky, this value varies by date in some approximation of seasonal variation) is used to stand in for these important processes. And that will get us a computer model that is GOOD ENOUGH. It's not good enough for more than a 3 to 5 days of accuracy before it completely diverges from observation, but during that 3 to 5 days, you're close enough.

That's just the short term forecast side of the discipline. The long term climatological forecasting bunch isn't any better. The reason the CRU from the University of East Anglia resists the FOIA (or UK equivalent) requests for their actual code and their actual data set is that if anyone else reviews it, they'll find absolute garbage. Code that was massaged until it would compile like monkeys trying to produce Hamlet on typewriters. Data scrubbing mechanisms that aren't documented or included in the methods. Unexplainable (and undisclosed) cuts in the datasets: why use the tree-ring data up to a certain date, but not go back and calculate again when another decade worth of data is available? (Hint: it makes the hockey stick disappear.) Why is all the extensive data from Russia/USSR excluded from the data set, really, it's only the largest land mass with routine data collection?

Here's the bottom line: meteorology and climatology are in the SNAKE OIL SALESMAN phase of development. It's too new, and it can't age like other disciplines because you can only make observations on periods of at least a decade. The basic physics, chemistry and fluid dynamics are known. The ability to add all the necessary terms into the equations is intrinsically tied to the power of the computers and the density of the data collected. There is legitimate scientific work being done, and you can identify it easily by the way the researchers reveal all their data, all their methods, and all their code for review and critique. Counter-hypotheses are made and these too must be taken seriously. THAT is science. That is NOT what you get these days, especially from "scientists" whose method of announcing their results is to call Reuters or the AP.

End result: Its track record for prediction is abysmal (remember the coming ice age in the 70s?). It attracts the attention and the funds of those who don't give a rat's ass about good scientific results, but are always looking for a good science-y patina to paint on top of their agenda.

Ultimately, as a species, we cannot rely in this discipline... yet. Give it another 50 to 100 years to knock off the snake oil salesmen. Meanwhile, we have to approach climate change as we have always done: DEAL WITH IT. When the water hole dries up, move. When the sea level rises, move back. When the local sea level drops because a totally unpredictable earthquake raises the land level by half a meter, dredge the canal a bit deeper. Nobody is guaranteed anything, especially not the exact environment your grandparents had. If you're going to be so massively and hubristically conservative that you will not bend your expectations when an exagram sized system doesn't maintain itself to your specification, kindly die out as you are wont to do so the world can be inherited by a fitter kind of human, one that realizes that we are tiny, tiny organisms existing in the thin slimy layer coating a spinning rock in space surrounded by a gasp of gasses.
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@Tirno
Well that sure is interesting, but what or who are you arguing with here?

You roughly calculate a sea-level rise of 1.69m over the next century. You caution that it is unrealistic, and yes it is: the article's worst prediction is 32cm of increase by 2100.

So what? Are we supposed to say "that number is not very big, what's all the fuss about"? If that's the idea, I'd expect something a bit more thought-out from a scientist.
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OK, let's do some rough math.

Using figures from wikipedia:

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean)

Total volume of earth's oceans: 1.3 billion cubic kilometres = 1.30 x 10^18 cubic meters

Total area of earth's oceans: 361 million square kilometres = 3.61 x 10^14 square meters

Temp of the surface varies, but the temp of the thermocline at the bottom of the mesopelagic (uppermost) layer is 12 degrees C, so let's start there as a marking point for the interior temperature of the ocean so we can pick the right place in the water density calculation.

Now, density of water varies depending on what's dissolved in it, such as salt which makes the solution more dense, but let's work with just the thermal expansion of water.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Properties_of_water#Density_of_water_and_ice

Density at 10 degrees C: 999.7026
Density at 15 Degrees C: 999.1026

Density delta of 5 degrees C: 0.060054% volume increase

These climate activists claim a heat increase of 3.91 degrees C with the weakest form of their agenda implemented, so let's go with that figure: .046962% volume increase

All of that volume increase goes at the top (it can't expand sideways), so a rough calculation is to divide the increase volume by the surface area to get the vertical expansion. This does not take into account the sideways expansion at the surface.

water volume x volume increase / water surface area

1.30 x 10^18 m^3 x 4.70 x 10^-4 / 3.61 x 10^14 m^2

(Never trust a calculation that doesn't show you the units) 1.69 m, or about 5.5 feet

Problems with this calculation:
- wikipedia numbers, so significant figures are suspect, but we will be in the right order of magnitude
- Water will spread sideways, so surface area increases per fraction of a meter of vertical expansion, which should revise the vertical rise downwards
- The oceans can only heat or cool from the surface
- Warmer water has lower density, so it rises to the top, so the water most warmed is the warmest water
- The entire calculation is premised on the increase of planetary atmospheric temperate over 100 years being of that magnitude asserted (a conjecture under great dispute) being instantly distributed to the entire ocean volume
- Water does not conduct heat that well - mostly heat in water is distributed by convection so without other mechanisms, the heat will not move downwards with any speed lacking other mechanisms (fresh vs salty water welling) other than conduction, and buoyancy will act to bring heat that does mix or convect downwards back upwards.
- More realistically, only the uppermost layers of water will thermally expand, with the majority of the water volume at lower levels warming a much smaller amount, if at all. This will drastically revise the sea level rise calculation downward.

Thus the above calculation is an UPPER BOUND based on ideal (i.e. unrealistic) assumptions of instantaneous heat distribution. Every additional more realistic model you would apply to the calculation can only bring the figure downwards.

Five and a half feet of unrealistic maximum possible rise due to thermal expansion, over a period of 100 years or FOUR TO SIX GENERATIONS.

Remember also that the tidal variation due to just sun and moon (not taking into account local bathymetry) is .93m, or 37 inches. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tide)

Perspective, people.

YES, I have a degree in atmospheric science, and I have been employed in the past by the federal government as a weather forecaster.
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Man, life sure is going to be different once Florida is gone. No new episodes of COPS. No new "idiot criminals" funny crime stories. No new hilarious footage of people crying next to hurricane-destroyed homes claiming that they'll rebuild again this year just to spite the storm. No more presidential election jokes about hanging chads or Pat Buchanan.

It's been fun.
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