Facing the Rising Tide

Science fiction novels often show a bleak future of erratic climates, rising seas and drowning cities, due to greenhouse gas increases in our atmosphere.

As the planet warms, most retained heat is absorbed by oceans, leading to thermal expansion of water – the same principle that makes mercury thermometers function. Polar ice cap and glacial melting are both happening at an unprecedented scale in human history and contribute to rising sea levels. It was assumed that this process would take centuries or millennia, giving us time to adapt to sea level rise. Recent, very conservative models shown by the International Panel for Climate Change in 2014 showed a ‘modest’ sea level rise of ‘only’ a maximum of 1 metre over the 21 st century. The same document acknowledges that a 2- degree Celsius increase in global average temperature, which occurred in the so-called ‘Eemian period’ around 120,000 years ago, was known to have raised sea levels six metres higher than present. There is a precedent to the scenario we are entering into.

Astoundingly, such a sea level rise would render major coastal cities and regions like London, Mumbai, New York, the Nile Delta and most of Bangladesh uninhabitable. Six metres would destroy Malta’s harbours, ravage Malta’s remaining water table and flood the fertile Pwales Valley, turning Mellieha ridge into an island. Still, until recently, models showed that such an increase would take centuries, and that if we somehow managed a reversal of climate change, could avoid the scenrio completely.

Until last week. New academic papers published by top universities and institutes in the field have raised alarm, highlighting that we have developed a flawed model all along. James Hansen, retired NASA scientist who first spoke to the US Congress in 1988 on the perils of global warming, published a video, explaining the implications of the study. This more accurate representation shows how the melting of the West Antarctic Ice sheet could lead to an increase of 20 to 30 feet (6 – 9m) in sea levels by 2100, if current warming trends The implications are terrifying. Although sea levels will not increase equally across the globe, alarming sea level rises will occur within the lifetime of today’s youth and their children. Are we, as a nation, preparing for the threat to our existence that we face from such an increase in sea levels? Even if we were to stop greenhouse gas emissions today, some degree of rise is inevitable as we have already locked some warming into our planet’s system, which will manifest itself over the next decades.

Armed with this knowledge, we should strive to encourage governments and policymakers locally to implement ways of ensuring a degree of preparation and adaptation to this emerging scenario.

Governments should start adopting long-term vision, beyond their electoral term, as regards medium-to- long term threats facing our country.

Not all is lost. We do have options to halt the onslaught on the world’s climate systems, even on a small scale. Mitigation plays a crucial role. Dramatic advances in technology have significantly reduced prices of solar power. Let us actively invest in solar panels or solar water heaters. Let us avoid careless car use and opt for public transport. Better still: use a bike.  consider lobbying our governments to encourage tele- working locally to not only reduce traffic, but also greatly reduce related air pollution. Malta boasts a burgeoning digital economy – let us use it to its full potential. It is often these small actions that make a big difference, and with these we can do our part to avert the bleak scenarios described.

John Paul Cauchi

FAA Commitee Member