Unabated greenhouse gas emissions could lead to sea level rise twice as high as we had anticipated, according to a recent study published in Nature.
By the end of this century, scientists predict that sea levels could rise by over 2 meters on average. Note that this is a global average, meaning that some areas could see much higher local rises in sea level. For Small Island Developing States, this could mean the end of their existence altogether. The research has been welcomed by the scientific community, who had already raised reservations with regards to what was called “very conservative” estimates of sea level rise caused by a changing climate.
So what has changed, how could we suddenly double sea level rise? The answer lies in complex processes involved in the melting of ice in Antarctica. Previous estimates had failed to take into account accelerated melting caused by disintegrating ice sheets. In fact, scientists had only been able to consider the melting ice shelves due to increased air and water temperatures, and had ignored the impact of surface melt-water and rainfall which can help fracture large chunks of ice.
Climate change adaptation has been hailed as the ultimate recourse to prevent negative impacts of sea level rise. For instance, in a number of coastal regions, ecosystem-based adaptation helped by mangroves has been underway for some years already. Mangroves play a significant role in protecting coastal regions from intense storms including typhoons, expected to increase in frequency with climate change. Combined with sea level rise, such storm could be catastrophic, especially in densely populated areas.
In previous adaptation planning, the unique property of mangroves to “grow soil” had been counted on to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels. The rate of growth of mangroves was very much in line with previous climate change projections, yet this new data would suggest that these fragile ecosystems would no longer be able to keep up with the increased rate of sea level rise. Hence, millions of the most vulnerable coastal communities will likely have to rethink their adaptation strategies, a very costly endeavour.
So what is the silver lining? If we achieve the targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, sea levels will continue to rise, but never to the rate which would occur if Antarctica’s melting was to start accelerating. Coastal communities will still need to adapt, but costs will be reduced and lives will be saved.
Lying on the floodplains of the mighty Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers Bangladesh is a rich, fertile land. These giant river systems meet in the centre of the country and flow together into the Bay of Bengal which, at over 1600km wide, is the largest delta in the world.
Rising Sea Level
Bangladesh is often cited as one of the countries that will be most negatively affected by rising sea levels from human induced climate change. Two thirds of the country lies less than 5m above of sea level. With vast regions to the south much less than a 1m above sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that just 1m rise in sea level could directly expose nearly 14 million people and result in potentially 17% land loss in southern Bangladesh.
Most of the country receives on average more than 2.5m of rainfall a year, 80% of which falls in about 4 months during the peak monsoon season, resulting in large annual floods. The flood waters bring nutrient rich clays and silts from the high Himalayas and deposit them on the river floodplains. These rich soils produce bountiful harvests of rice and other crops. Unsurprisingly, farming is the most common profession.
However floods, once welcomed by farmers and their families are now harbingers of disaster. Human induced climate change has resulted in more erratic monsoon weather patterns with often larger than normal volumes of water being delivered in shorter time intervals. The resulting floods have had devastating effects on the Bangladeshi people. In 2012 three large floods hit the country in swift succession between the months of July and September directly affecting more than 5 million people. These are now a common annual occurrence.
Bangladesh is also subject to annual tropical cyclones, storm surges and tornadoes. Some of the worst natural disasters in recorded history were results of cyclonic storms in the Bengal region. Among them, the 1970 Bhola cyclone which claimed over 500,000lives! Worryingly new research into the impacts of climate change has shown that large cyclonic storms will become a more common occurrence in the years and decades to come.
The foothills of the great Himalayan mountain belt has historically been the location of many large earthquakes. Earthquakes in the continent tend to be more infrequent compared to regions such as Japan and California. However this makes them more unpredictable and often unexpected. But when one does occur it can result in significant ground shaking. The 1897 magnitude 8.1 and 1950 magnitude8.7 Assam earthquakes were two of the biggest to hit the region in recent times. The current building stock in Bangladesh is poorly built and most are not built to withstand ground shaking in an earthquake. The collapse of poorly built buildings is the greatest hazard during an earthquake.
So what can we as earth scientists do?
Bangladesh has a population of over 160 million and among the highest population density of any country in the world. With the majority of the country built on river floodplains combined with widespread corruption and ignorance a large earthquake could quite possibly result in the greatest natural calamity to have ever hit the country!
Bangladesh needs to increase its resilience if its people are to survive the multitude of natural hazards they face. Earth scientists are well placed to understand the risks involved from these hazards and can play a key role in all aspects of building a resilient infrastructure.
Climate science research is ongoing and needs to continue to better understand the affect human induced climate is having and will have on the annual monsoon. This knowledge needs to be translated into rainfall variation and flooding potentials and communicated with the people who need this information. The socio-economic issues of a rising sea level needs to be addressed and plans put in place to allow big cities to efficiently absorb and cater for migrants moving away from hazard prone coastal regions. Hydro-geologists and geochemists are helping to find sustainable clean, arsenic free water sources for drinking and farming. Seismologists and earthquake scientists are working to better understand the seismic risk in the Himalayan foothills; produce more accurate hazard maps and importantly identify the active faults within the region.
These are to name but a few of the ways earth scientists can get involved. I believe it is our moral duty to translate the practical aspects of our science into real benefits for people.