New Book: High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis

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Exactly a week before Sandy hit New York City this new book described exactly that event hitting that location. Anyone with property near the shore needs to understand this phenomenon, the property impacts, and how to adapt.

The timing is eerie. I did not predict Sandy, but was using it as one of many examples to show how we are largely in denial about our coastal vulnerability.

In his brand new book, High Tide on Main Street, author and oceanographer John Englander takes the mystery out of all the science, engineering and technology and takes a pragmatic look at what this means to land values, as well as social, government and personal action.

Avoiding scientific jargon, he clearly explains the surprising factors of sea level rise (SLR) and why it will rise for hundreds of years, regardless of what we do about greenhouse gases. That can combine with increased storm surge for an entirely new coastal vulnerability.

Sandy was a quadruple hit with an unluckily combination of factors. First there was the abnormally large storm with an unusual track from southeast to northwest. Second, it came at lunar high tide adding another foot or so. Third, sea level has been rising over the last century, slowly but surely adding another foot in that location. Fourth, the land forms and underwater topography off New York harbor would amplify the storm surge in that location.

The tide cycle and extremes with the lunar cycle are generally understood. The book explains the other three factors, translating the latest science into powerful metaphors that the public can grasp. Key facts are explained and common myths are and dispelled, for example: The disappearing polar ice caps prove the planet is warming, but has no direct effect on sea level. Contrary to popular perception the ice around the north pole is floating sea ice. As it melts it does not change sea level.

For the last few million years we have had ice ages on natural cycles. They occur about every hundred thousand years due to small variations in the amount of solar energy Earth gets each year, a phenomenon known as the Milankovitch Cycle. The variations are caused by changes in our orbit and tilt in relation to the sun. The last ice age peaked 20,000 years ago. At that time there were ice sheets a couple of miles thick draping down over the northern hemisphere -- just like in the “ice age” movies. As ten thousand feet of ice melts the ocean rises a stunning three or four hundred feet. With each foot of vertical rise, the coastline can move hundreds, even thousands of feet inland.

For the last six thousand years, sea level has not changed much. This happened to coincide with the rise of our civilization and recorded human history. We only understood the geologic history recently, about a century ago. The fact that sea level has changed little is why we think the coastline is fixed in place. We were fooled by mother nature.

"Sandy is just part of a looming coastal crisis. It is a harbinger of a new era of sea level rise, extreme tides and storm surge," Englander says. "The devastating economic effects will not be limited to the coasts. We have to start adapting to a new world now."

Sea level changes will directly impact communities and individuals living within the range of a rising sea in numerous ways. There is a direct impact on the future value of land near or at the coast. Rising sea level will eventually have catastrophic impacts on the physical, economic and societal infrastructures essential for the well-being of our economy. From ports and navy bases, to power plants and refineries, coastal rail lines and airports, we are critically dependent on vast coastal infrastructure. These are the very services and facilities essential for our society to function.

Englander provides a five point roadmap for the future, called "intelligent adaptation" - a practical guide for long-term planning. His recommendations cover five critical areas including:

1. Act with a long-term perspective, to get the best return on investment (ROI). If you just
anticipate a foot of SLR, you will build a certain kind of defense. But once it becomes clear that the rise will eventually get to 5 feet and higher, that initial defense may be worthless. Better to build a foundation and strategy for the longer term situation, to invest in the future.

2. Recognize there will be a range of projections this century for SLR - just like economic or crop
projections. Don't wait for an exact number to begin to plan and act.

3. Consider the geography and topography at each location, for example: New York City. Geologically New York or at least Manhattan has a plus in that the rock is granite and gneiss, impermeable rocks that can be protected with seawalls up to a considerable height. Miami cannot be saved for the long term (next century) due to the Achilles Heel of porous limestone. Sandy demonstrated that the challenge for NYC is that the topography topside and underwater funnels storm surge, raising its levels substantially.

4. Recognize the finite future of government bailouts for coastal real estate. We can spend a few hundred billion rebuilding New Orleans; Venice can spend six billion dollars on their adjustable "MOSE" gates, but these are myopic solutions. When it becomes clear that sea level rise is not a random location event, and will eventually destroy all coastal property, governments will stop compensating people, since no government has enough money to cover all coastal developments and impacts.

5. Anticipate property devaluation. Very soon, common sense will have us depreciating or amortizing the value of coastal property, recognizing that it has limited life, like a building. This will have a huge financial impact, affecting companies, communities and governments (tax bases). Once the awareness becomes clear, values will start to decrease. It is always better to choose your timing to sell, if you know an asset will depreciate, rather than appreciate over the long term.

This sea level rise is changing the face of the planet, and should no longer be a political issue. Ice melts at 32 degrees, regardless of anyone's political views. Melting ice means higher sea level - resulting in changes that will last for thousands of years, making them effectively permanent. Englander's book provides a unique synthesis of the state of the art in scientific understanding of sea-level; past, present and future.

Ralph Rayner, Editor in Chief of the Journal of Operational Oceanography, stated: "[John's book] paints a clear picture of the implications for us and for future generations."

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Katherine McCall, Publicist
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