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SOLUTIONS 3/18: The Seas are Rising

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By Huck Fairman

Central New Jersey’s Sierra Club recently presented a Zoom talk on the accelerating rate of sea level rise, presented by Dr. Jennifer Walker of Rutgers University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

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With the rate of sea level rise increasing, New Jersey is particularly vulnerable to its impacts. There are a number of reasons for this. First, as most know, the entire planet is warming, largely due to emissions trapping heat. But the oceans absorb much of this trapped heat, which causes their volume to expand. The resulting sea level rise is the fastest in 2000 years.

And in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the data on emissions warns that the heating will continue long after emissions are slowly reduced.

A second factor contributing to the sea level rise is the melting glaciers and ice sheets, notably in the Arctic and Antarctic, but in mountain ranges as well. With this melting likely to increase, the oceans’ volumes will increase, raising sea levels.

A third, and local cause, is the fact that in New Jersey, and along the Mid-Atlantic coast, the land is sinking. It is doing so as it slowly adjusts to the changes following the disappearance of the large ancient ice sheet over the land. The melt from that ice sheet, the water, is slowly moving or simply evaporating as the thermal levels rise, together allowing the land to sink. And from these several factors, the sea level rise along the New Jersey coast is increasing faster than the global average.

Another factor is that global warming is slowing ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream.
This results in longer periods of heat and cold along their paths. The United Kingdom may experience this as increased cold periods, while New Jersey shore residents may experience longer warm periods, and increased sea level rise.

The impacts from these several factors include flooding and destructive storm surges. And from the rising heat, and resulting energy, the strength and frequency of strong storms is predicted to increase.

With the development and population increases along the Jersey Shore, the impacts of both sea level rise and predicted storms will be increasingly expensive. In some communities, mitigation efforts, in the form of enhancing dunes and marshes along the bays, provide demonstrable protection, for a time. They appear to be the most effective responses, but in time even they may be overwhelmed by the rising seas and storms.

In the nearer term, those communities with sufficient assets can build back or replace beach sand and dunes, but that ability varies between communities. In time, the destruction or damage in some communities will eventually impact adjoining communities. The costs of repairing the damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 should give us an idea of the costs ahead.

As both the global heating and sea level rise seem certain to continue, the only reasonable response in more vulnerable areas may be simply retreat, where residents move inland or elsewhere.

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