Sea-Level Rise in Texas: Science & Self-Censorship In An Age of Urgency

Damages from extreme weather will be “magnified” by sea-level rise and subsidence along the Texas Gulf Coast. Pictured here is Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008.

A new report on the dangers of accelerating sea-level rise along the Texas Gulf Coast from a coalition of leading scientists and state research institutions is a call to action.

risk rising sea level reportHowever, while the report “The Risk of Rising Sea Level: Texas Universities Ready and Able to Help Coastal Communities Adapt” (pdf), pulls no punches as it both warns of sizable economic and environmental damages ahead and takes Texas to task for failing to respond to the rising tides, the absence of any references to global warming as the driver of that change — much less acknowledgement that policies addressing climate change can impact that rise — results in a lost opportunity.

Recognizing the work done in Louisiana and Florida, the report states, “Adaptation strategies have been identified and cost-benefit ratios calculated by several different communities to determine what protective measures can be implemented. Texas lags behind other states in these efforts, and remains, for the most part, unprepared.”

Recently classified as the worst state in the nation when it comes to protecting the ocean, Texas has done little when it comes to preventing payback as the ocean itself swells from increasing absorption of heat from rising global temperatures to eat away our beaches, infrastructure, and contaminate coastal freshwater supplies, among other impacts.

Regardless of how much the Gulf rises relative to the Texas coast in the coming decades, it is clear from experience that even small increases in sea level will exacerbate coastal flooding, contaminate coastal freshwater supplies with salt water, shrink barrier islands, erode beaches, displace marshes, and magnify the impact and cost of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tropical storms. The recent devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy was, in fact, made worse by a foot of sea-level rise over the last century.

texas sea level rise todayLikely, the researchers avoided talk of climate change — the force actually driving the rise (though not necessarily the subsidence issues also at play) out of fear of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s big global-warming censorship pen. Unfortunately, that decision also means the dilemma in play is vastly undersold.

The “best case scenario” is suggested to be the current rate of warming of 1/5-inch per year, although the paper allows that a “warming atmosphere” (no explanation given) is expected to increase the current rate of expansion to as much as an “almost unfathomable six feet of rise.”

Elsewhere in the report, the authors allow that during a “very warm period approximately 122,000 years ago, sea levels were about 20 feet higher than they are today.” It is in that statement that the key to a more honest understanding of the coast of Texas’ future is visible.

In fact, to read the research of NASA, as I did a few years back when I was concerned about future flooding and storm surge in relation to the South Texas Project’s nuclear plant, is to see sea-level rise of closer to 20 feet.

I found it looked something like this:

sea level rise matagorda

More recent work at National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, however, has shown that even stopping our CO2 emissions at their current atmospheric levels of 400 ppm are expected to take us to a minimum of 27 feet of sea-level rise (and is more like to reach 72 feet or more) over several centuries.

So while the Texas collaborative have failed to express the full cost of global warming when it comes to rising tides (or that policies of mitigation can have an impact on them), what it does really well is communicate the urgency of adaptation.

The economic costs are communicated effectively as they are linked to rapid coastal erosion, land subsidence, salt-water intrusion, and the sensitivity of our once-bountiful estuaries.

Historically, the Texas coastline was protected from storms and surges by long barrier islands and wetlands. However, reduced sediment delivery, wetland destruction, and coastal development have been eroding that protective system. In the absence of natural buffers, people, homes and other structures take the brunt of storm surges. Texas scientists estimate that the loss of 1 acre of native coastal wetland boosts flood damage by $1.5 million. As wetlands recede inland, so does the land itself, bringing the Gulf closer to homes and businesses and increasing the risk of storm surges and flooding.

Gulf Coast energy assets

Four of the nation’s busiest ports (where more than half of all foreign-sourced oil was imported in 2010, the report adds) will be struggling to adapt, too. As will the owners and workers tied to an estimated $800 billion of Gulf-ward fossil-fuel energy assets pictured in the chart above.

(“Hey, they made the weather,” the cynic would be forgiven for thinking…)

However, the message of what rising seas means in terms of human lives is not lost here.

“As we just saw with Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, one of the outcomes of what was a pretty unusual confluence of weather events was a storm surge that was made worse by a century’s worth of sea-level rise,” said Wendy Gordon, founder of the organization that put together the workshop that spun off this join report, in a prepared release. 

“People living up and down the Texas coast and also living inland in low-lying regions are looking not only at incremental sea-level rise but also the fact that 10, 20 and 30 years hence, hurricanes that come ashore are going to push the tide even further inland. That becomes a risk to businesses, property owners, residents, and communities all along the coast and in turn it then becomes an economic risk throughout the state.”

Research. Prepare. Adapt. Vital ambitions all. But there’s something else we know about the character of those storms that will be coming to shore and taking advantage of all those new-made fractures in the coast: they’ll be fueled by the additional heat of industrially driven climate change.

There’s something we can do about that. If only we could talk about it.