Engulfed by a Sea-Level Rise of 15 Feet

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

What would we do if a major metropolis — millions of people and trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure — found itself engulfed by a sea-level rise of 15 feet? The same thing we’ve already done — repeatedly:

Since 1930, excessive groundwater withdrawal has caused Tokyo to subside by as much as 15 feet. Similar subsidence has occurred over the past century in numerous cities, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Osaka, Bangkok and Jakarta. And in each case, the city has managed to protect itself from such large relative sea-level rises without much difficulty.

The process is called adaptation, and it’s something we humans are very good at.

The most famous example is the Netherlands:

Although a fifth of their country lies below sea level — and fully half is less than three feet above it — the Dutch maintain an enormously productive economy and enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living. The secret is a centuries-old system of dikes, supplemented in recent decades by an elaborate network of floodgates and other barriers. All this adaptation is not only effective but also amazingly inexpensive. Keeping Holland protected from any future sea-level rises for the next century will cost only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Urban heat islands are another enormous problem with a simple solution:

We can paint them. Hashem Akbari, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in cost-effective methods of combating the effects of climate change in urban areas, has shown that by painting roofs white, covering asphalt roadways with concrete-colored surfaces and planting shade trees, local temperatures could be reduced by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Akbari and colleagues reported in the journal Climatic Change last year that for every 100 square feet of black rooftop converted to white surface, the effects of roughly one ton of carbon dioxide would be offset.

(Hat tip to Ronald Bailey of Reason.)

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