Scientists are now saying global climate change will usher in even higher seas and more flooding than previously predicted.
FIFTY YEARS AGO, I was an indifferent student drifting through random courses. In my post-teen ennui, I mostly hung around the student newspaper office drinking terrible coffee in the hope of chatting up a girl.
The furthest thing from my mind was that my life was actually an après nous le déluge moment; that in my lifetime I’d be contemplating floods of biblical proportions that, over the next 50 years, will likely force close to a million Canadians from their homes, including thousands in communities on the South Island, Sunshine Coast and Lower Mainland.
Willows Beach and the adjacent upland area could disappear beneath the rising sea. Evidence is mounting that it might happen sooner than previously believed. (Photo by Stephen Hume)
From Oak Bay to Campbell River to Port Alberni, homes, resorts, industrial sites and businesses are now at discernible risk of future flooding wherever they have been built along walk-on beach front or on the flood plains and alluvial fans where scores of streams and rivers that punctuate the coast of Vancouver Island meet tidewater.
It seems like a science fiction scenario from that Kevin Costner sci-fi flick Waterworld. Whole city centres drowned? Previously high-demand neighbourhoods rendered uninsurable? Billions of dollars in residential, commercial and industrial real estate written off the board by the environmental consequences of climate change? Here, in our Island Eden?
Yet that’s what new research published last October now points toward. It used advanced neural network computing to correct earlier digital models forecasting sea level rise. Earlier calculations of land elevations—and therefore of how much farther inland the high tides of the future might reach, particularly if amplified by a storm—turned out to have underestimated by 30 percent.
The study “New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding” by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss of Climate Central in Nature Communications warns that over the next 30 years, about 500,000 Canadians living on coastal lowlands may have to deal with significant annual flooding.
And worst-case scenarios—in which atmospheric carbon emissions continue without abatement on the current trend—will make about 850,000 coast-dwelling Canadians vulnerable to annual floods by the time 2020’s first-year students are my age and wondering how their half-century flew by so quickly.
Worldwide, the researchers warn, about 250 million people now live within one metre of sea level. Even conservative estimates point to the near-inevitability of a two-metre rise by the end of the century. Other scientists suggest—and the new research correcting older models lends credence to their alarm—that the geological record warns us that more rapid and higher sea-level rise is not only within the realm of possibility but, perhaps, even probability.
A research team from Australia observes that 125,000 years ago under conditions similar although not identical to the present—atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were then about a third lower than today—sea levels rose quickly to about 10 metres above today’s levels.
“What is striking about the last interglacial is how high and quickly sea level rose above present levels,” write Fiona Hibbert, Eelco Rohling and Katharine Grant, ocean and climate researchers at Australian National University. “Temperatures during the last interglacial were similar to those projected for the near future, which means melting polar ice sheets will likely affect future sea levels far more dramatically than anticipated to date.”
They point out that polar warming did not occur simultaneously during that melt. But thanks to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, warming and loss of ice mass are now happening in both the Arctic and the Antarctic at the same time. “This means that if climate change continues unabated, Earth’s past dramatic sea-level rise could be a small taste of what’s to come,” the Australian scientists say.
It seems reasonable, then, to consider people living up to 10 metres above present sea level to be at potential future risk from combinations of rising seas and higher seasonal tides with storm surges. Those parameters increase the number of people at risk globally to one billion.
At 20, I couldn’t imagine being 40. So I understand how these timelines seem unimaginably long for some, even some scientists. But when the predicted events are occurring, the time between then and now will seem like the blink of an eye.
BACK IN MY DAYS OF BLISSFUL IGNORANCE, I’d consider the dolorous prospect of another afternoon researching overdue essays on Greek epitaphs or Wordsworth’s view of the metropolis. Instead I’d ride my motorcycle down to Cadboro Bay and take the waterfront past Willows Beach through the Royal Victoria Golf Course to McNeill Bay. From Crescent Road, I’d follow Penzance past the Chinese Cemetery out to Harling Point, named for a local resident who famously expired of hypothermia following a tragic marine rescue in Gonzalez Bay 35 years before my visits.
Harling Point’s real name, its first one, at least, is Sahsima—Coast Salish for “harpoon.” And it’s an important spiritual site. It was here that Xals, the transformer who mediates between the natural and the supernatural and brings order and balance to the world, changed a seal hunter to stone, simultaneously granting him power over the seals hunted by the Songhees. As Royal BC Museum curator Grant Keddie once observed, Sahsima is a place that signifies the gravity of the natural balance in maintaining the world’s order, a notion that seems ever more important as we relentlessly upset the equilibrium of local, regional and global ecologies.
I’d clamber through a dense fringe of broom and prickly gorse and onto the inexpressibly ancient rocks. They still bore recent scars of an Ice Age, left 22,000 years ago by boulders dragged beneath glaciers flowing over the Saanich Peninsula. Those ice sheets were two kilometres deep at maximum, and over the Saanich Peninsula weighed about 250 gigatonnes. The number is incomprehensibly large, like so many in geological time. It represents 250 kilograms with 12 zeros behind it. (That immense mass of ice, by the way, would be equivalent to less than a quarter of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by us since 1850.)
I knew this only because one of those fascinating young women at the student newspaper told me about a geography field trip. She urged me to look for the fault line where rock from ancient continents had collided.
And so there I’d sit with an apple and a piece of cheddar on a blustery afternoon, straddling two vanished continents. The sun gleamed on the last remnants of ancient ice fields on the Olympic Mountains. I watched the endless Pacific suck and gurgle into the deep fissures that ice and moving water had carved into the basalt and chert from 40 million years ago when Wrangellia collided with what geologists call the Leech River Complex.
On a day when the tide was right and the swells were big, bulked up by the surge from some storm beyond the horizon, the seas would boom into the rocky chutes with enough force to make the rock vibrate. Glistening white foam would jet upward, spindrift twisting away on the wind.
My procrastination around schoolwork wasn’t wasted time. In fact, it was my first genuine encounter with the idea of time, relativity and what that might mean. There was synchronicity and yet there wasn’t. I thought of how those 2000-year-old Greek epitaphs, which had seemed so distant in the classroom, might have been written that very morning, compared to the epitaphs scrawled by glaciers 20,000 years before upon the very rocks where I sat.
And the slow glaciers themselves—what were they, in a time frame of 40 million years? Even Wrangellia was young compared to eternal, changeless Mother Ocean, who was herself writing an epitaph for the vanished continent, grain of sand by grain of sand, even as I watched. The timeless tides come in and go out, I thought, and nothing changes except us, as ephemeral as the spindrift.
But the ocean is changing. It’s increasing in volume as it heats, and as polar ice caps and high elevation ice sheets melt at faster and faster rates. Most of us have noted the retreat, for example, of the Comox Glacier, the dwindling snow on Island mountains, the Coast Range and the Olympic Mountains. But these are mere glimpses of something vast.
In Alaska, about to log its hottest year ever, glaciers shed mass into the sea at record rates. Some show consecutive years of record ice loss. Others show near-record loss but can’t set new records because they’ve lost so much mass already.
Glaciers in the St Elias Mountains of northwestern BC and the southern Yukon lost about one-quarter of their mass since I was a first-year university student. Glaciologists estimate that over the next 50 years, about 80 percent of the Canadian Rockies’ ice fields—the water supply for carbon-pumping Alberta—will melt away.
Greenland, Antarctica, Iceland, the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes—ice is vanishing at a rate that now astonishes scientists used to dealing with change over millennia and geological epochs.
“These [glacier] collapses would drive up sea levels, devastate marine life and disrupt ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns that dictate temperatures and rainfall around the world,” says one late-November report by James Temple in the MIT Technology Review. “The death of forests [from drought and fire] would release vast stores of greenhouse gases while the melting of ice would reduce the planet’s reflectivity—and raise the risk of setting off still more tipping points.”
Thawing permafrost releases greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification caused by warming releases greenhouse gases. Burning forests release greenhouse gases. Humans show no sign of curbing their release of greenhouse gases.
CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS frequently accuse science of exaggerating the threat of climate change. A report in Scientific American by three scholars, studying how scientists disseminate their findings, says it’s precisely the opposite. Not only have scientists not exaggerated, they have seriously underestimated and understated the speed and scope with which change is occurring.
The United Nations’ much-vilified Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change turns out not to be the extremist conspiracy touted by denialists. Instead, it’s been too conservative. There is bias, it turns out, but it’s toward exaggerated caution.
What current data really shows, the report says, is that “disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt.”
This concern seems to be corroborated by research of American glaciologists, who reported earlier this year that Antarctica’s annual loss of ice mass increased 600 percent between 1979 and 2017.
“As the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt away, we expect multi-metre sea level rise from Antarctica in the coming centuries,” said Eric Rignot of the University of California, the study’s lead scientist.
Climate scientists with the World Meteorological Organization, which just released its 2019 report on the state of global climate, conclude that Greenland lost 350 gigatonnes of ice this year, that the melt is accelerating, and that it’s accelerating in the Antarctic, too.
Another worrisome study reported in Nature during the UN summit on climate change in December stated that Greenland’s glacier was melting seven times faster than what the IPCC had predicted in the 1990s. Based on observations by 96 polar scientists using satellite imagery and measurements of flow and volume since 1992, scientists labelled it a huge concern, as tipping points might be breached sooner than expected.
Greenland’s ice sheet is melting seven times faster than it was during the 1990s (Photo courtesy of NASA)
There’s uncertainty about what will happen between now and the end of the century, but it’s clear that if the rate of melt on those two big ice sheets—Greenland’s and the Antarctic’s—has been significantly underestimated, all hell can break loose in the oceans.
There is enough ice in those two sources to raise sea levels by more than 60 metres. That’s not expected to happen or, if it does, to happen over centuries, but so far expectations have regularly been confounded by events.
As climate science writer Eugene Linden pointed out in the New York Times in late 2019, had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels while scorching the Arctic and producing temperatures worthy of the Sahara desert in Paris and Berlin “the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist.” But that happened last summer. In parts of Florida, residential neighbourhoods have endured more than 80 consecutive days of ocean flooding. For some, the worst-case future has already arrived.
WHAT HAS ALL THIS TO DO WITH US, living in our complacent West Coast Eden?
Well, many on the Island, surrounded by the rising sea, already live or work at or below the two-metre elevation that’s now the conservative estimate for sea-level rise. The entire Windsor Park area in Oak Bay, for example, has two metres of elevation. The entrance to the BC Provincial Archives building is one metre above sea level.
So, if on the evidence and given the consistency of underestimation, it seems reasonable to assume that a 10-metre rise is now a possibility, then the risks for householders, businesses and infrastructure begin to look large, indeed.
For example, the steps of the provincial legislature building are six metres above sea level, as is the foyer of the Royal BC Museum. Bastion Square is five metres. New residential complexes around the Selkirk Waterway are four metres. The entrance to St Anne’s Academy is six metres. Esquimalt High School is four metres. Shopping centres in downtown Campbell River are all less than eight metres.
Interactive maps created by the same researchers who found previous estimates of coastal elevations to be wrong, calculate flooding from sea-level rise at different temperatures. At four degrees of global warming, Oak Bay is bisected by a new sea channel that extends from Oak Bay Marina to Beach Drive at McNeill Bay. Willows Beach, with its multi-million-dollar homes, is inundated as far back as Beach Drive.
Cadboro Bay Village is below the tideline as far as Arbutus Road. Much of Tsawout Indian Reserve at Saanichton Bay is under water. Downtown Sidney is almost entirely flooded from just north of the airport interchange to North Saanich Marina. Swartz Bay ferry terminal is under water. Land east of Patricia Bay is flooded inland almost as far as Pat Bay Highway.
In Victoria, James Bay becomes an archipelago. The historic buried stream flowing from Fairfield to near the Inner Harbour becomes an inlet. Rock Bay floods up Discovery and Pembroke streets almost as far as Douglas. The sea extends up Bridge Street from Bay Street to Ellice. Along the Selkirk Waterway, all the land below Tyee Road is drowned. Properties fronting the Gorge are largely flooded.
High-value areas in the potential danger zone near Victoria are found in Cadboro Bay, Telegraph Cove, Maynard Cove, Cordova Bay, Sayward Beach, Saanichton Bay, Ferguson Cove and Bazan Bay. Farther up Island, Cowichan Bay, the estuaries of the Chemainus, Englishman, Qualicum, Somass and Campbell rivers, Parksville, Lantzville, Rathtrevor, Saratoga and Miracle beaches would all be at risk from sharply rising sea levels combined with storm surges and seasonal high tides. For rural residents, saltwater intrusion into wells, septic fields and farmland becomes an issue.
Already flooding on some high tides, sea level rise could inundate Cadboro Bay’s waterfront (Photo by Stephen Hume)
Are these scenarios extraordinarily far-fetched? Is it sensationalist fear-mongering to raise them for discussion? Well, if anybody has a vested interest in figuring out what might lie ahead, it’s the insurance industry. And the insurance industry is worried.
Several US studies conclude that real estate values in coastal risk zones already feel the impact. Researchers at the University of Colorado’s business school estimated that properties exposed to sea-level rise are already selling, on average, for seven percent less. A sea-level research group called First Street Foundation says that on the US East Coast and Gulf Coast, exposed properties have lost $16 billion in appreciation value since 2005.
In Canada, the senior research director at the Bank of Canada’s Financial Stability Department warned earlier this year that climate change has the potential by the end of the century to reduce global annual GDP by up to 23 percent. Those who thought the recession of 2008 was bad should imagine one ten times deeper.
Lloyd’s, a global player in insurance, carefully studied the damage claims following Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York in 2012. It concluded that sea-level rise increased flooding losses by 30 percent. During the storm,16 historical records for high tides were broken on the Atlantic seaboard. New York’s subway flooded.
“Rising sea levels around the world could have significant implications for insurers in the context of storm surge,” Lloyd’s concluded in its 2014 report. And Munich Re, one of the corporate giants that insure insurance companies, says that significantly higher insurance premiums for property owners in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise are already emerging.
So one prospect that Island waterfront property and coastal flood-plain property owners may face is whether their properties will in future be deemed uninsurable and possibly become unsellable.
All this raises important questions for policy makers, provincial and municipal governments, insurers, taxpayers and property owners that deserve a robust public discussion.
It’s time for a clear-eyed and serious exchange of views about who pays the bill for risk and damage which, it seems inevitable, will increase year by year.
What should happen when property becomes increasingly vulnerable to a known risk? Some jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, for example, already plan to move entire low-lying coastal communities to higher ground lock, stock and barrel. Others, including Richmond on the Lower Mainland, are betting on dykes, levees and flood-control infrastructure.
Where does future liability lie if development is zoned by provincial and municipal authorities for real estate that lies in risk areas vulnerable to flooding should the sea level rise more dramatically than current predictions?
What about taxation? Right now walk-on waterfront is taxed at a premium, because it’s a high-demand commodity that generates high value. But what if the value depreciates rapidly because of flooding risk and an eventual inability to insure?
Most municipal taxpayers could never afford to buy beachfront homes. Where should the burden for mitigating risk to such properties from sea-level rise fall? That is, should all taxpayers be paying for anti-flooding infrastructure that protects high-value residential districts that most of those taxpayers are financially excluded from living in?
Should we be having a conversation about if, when, or whether provincial and municipal governments should start restricting development in flood-prone areas, or even providing incentives to shift residential and commercial occupants to safer ground, or planning to dyke areas to make them flood-proof?
And, of course, the big question for all of us is, who pays and how?
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
How might future global temperature increases affect sea level in Victoria? Readers might be interested in visiting Climate Central's interactive map for this area.