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Friday, October 30, 2009

Global warming is putting the East Coast cities at risk for severe flooding

HAMPTON — Sea levels are rising faster than expected and coastal cities on the East Coast are at risk for severe flooding, according to arctic scientists. The Northeast may face a "double whammy" with climate change, too.

The new scientific data was part of the discussion Thursday as local and state officials, representatives and members of the Rockingham Planning Commission united for a community roundtable on climate change and sea-level rise, at the Ashworth Hotel.

The event, hosted by the nonprofit Clean Air—Cool Planet in partnership with Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, was the final stop on the Hipboot Tour. Featuring scientists who recently returned from the poles on climate studies, the eight-stop tour, which kicked off Oct. 20 in Philadelphia.

"In our time (climate change and sea-level rise) will affect all aspects of human society," said Steven Miller, coordinator of the Coastal Training Program at the Great Bay NERR.

"What we know about climate change today is different than what we knew yesterday. Tomorrow, what we know will be richer and deeper than what we know today," he continued.

According to Miller, the issue is "complex" and "more dialogue within coastal communities (concerning) how to address the issue of adapting locally" as well as conversation broaching the "mitigation of climate change" is essential.

Gordon Hamilton, research associate professor at the University of Maine, who has done extensive work on glaciers in Greenland, told attendees estimates in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which indicated sea-level would rise between 18 and 59 centimeters by 2100, are not realistic.

"Work done in the last couple of years ...; (shows) that the amount of sea-level rise by 2100 will be in excess of a meter," he said. "That's an important take-home message."

According to Hamilton, "thermal expansion" — the expansion of fluids in warmer temperatures — and ice melting, are not the only causes of sea-level rise.

"The other way you put mass in the ocean is not in liquid, but in solid form," he said, referencing ice that breaks into the ocean, displacing water, like "ice in a cocktail glass."

Hamilton said some glaciers he has studied are moving "three times faster" than they were just a few years ago.

Additionally, Hamilton said the Northeast seaboard might get hit with climate changes, creating what he called a "double whammy." Aside from "extra mass" from ice in Greenland, the Gulf Stream could be disrupted, slowing down and "piling up" warm water that comes up to the New Hampshire region from the tropics, thus exacerbating the "thermal expansion component."

Mark Fahnstock, research associate professor at the University of New Hampshire, who has also studied Greenland's glaciers extensively, shared videos of glacial flow and told the audience that Antarctica's glaciers are of concern as well.

Relative to Antarctica, "Greenland is a small place with only 10 percent of the ice," he said. In Antarctica, (glaciers and glacial events) are double or multiplied by four." According to Fahnstock, there has been an "outbreak" of glacial flow into the ocean in western Antarctica.

Rafe Pomerance, founder of the Climate Policy Center and president of CA-CP, spoke to attendees about the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled to take place in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18. He also addressed the Senate's struggle on the climate change issue and attempts to institute a "cap-and-trade system" for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as arctic nations' roles in intervention.

"The U.S. is in a tough position going into Copenhagen," Pomerance said, citing the executive branch's reluctance to sign a treaty if it does not have "the authority to implement what we agree to."

Cliff Sinnott, executive director of the Rockingham Planning Commission, expressed concern with local governments' abilities to plan for and institute policy in anticipation of sea-level rise on the Seacoast.

Sinnott said he wanted to know "how we should be planning from a scientific standpoint. It would be very helpful if there was some consolidation, putting together of information in a way that normal people could evaluate," he said, adding it would be useful to know "what it (scientific data) means in terms of a certain risk and how it translates into policy."

According to Hamilton, officials in London have already set a sea-level rise estimate to be used when considering new policy. Hamilton said the estimate is above anticipated predictions to ensure the safety of the "economy within the coastal floodplain." Hamilton called the practice a "pick a number ...; no regrets policy."

Sinnott expressed concern that it takes time to vote through legislation and said "some people do the easiest thing" and delay developing a preparedness plan while waiting for "better information."

Presenters encouraged attendees to stay up-to-date on the latest findings and maintain an open dialogue about climate change and sea-level issues within their communities.

"Tomorrow we will know more. We can't say exactly where we'll be in 2050," Miller said. In terms of the "adaptation and mitigation" strategies, it's important that a dialogue remains open on "all levels — state, federal and local ...; connect yourself to the issue."

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