A Coastal Star Special Report:
Rising Water: New signs of rising sea levels cause concern
Sea Level Rise: A lexicon
By Jane Smith
When John Englander visited Greenland in 2007, the oceanographer looked out along the rocky coast. The idea for his High Tide on Main Street book became clear. He knew he could clearly tell a tale of rising sea level and its catastrophic effects.
“Among all the confusing aspects of climate change, the reality of sea level rise alone might get the public’s attention enough that they recognize what is at stake,” the Boca Raton explorer wrote in his book.
In Greenland, he saw the melting ice sheet and glaciers, along with some members of the International SeaKeepers Society and their scientist guide. He was then CEO of SeaKeepers, comprised of yacht owners who equip their yachts with instruments to record ocean and atmospheric measurements and transmit them via satellite to scientists.
That data, along with a clear writing style, helped him create his book. In it, he attributes sea level rise to five factors: floating sea ice and the melting of the polar ice cap; melting of 170,000 glaciers on land, including those in Glacier National Park; melting ice sheets on Greenland and in West Antarctica; and the expansion of warming sea water. The greatest effects will come from the melting of the ice sheets, he said.
His book was released last fall, one week before Superstorm Sandy struck the Mid-Atlantic states. The devastation to New York City from the storm surge was one of 10 sea level rise scenarios he had described.
“I didn’t feel good about it,” he said. “It was eerie, one of those moments when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I didn’t predict it, but it lends credibility to what I described.”
A few days later, he became a media celebrity, starting with the BBC and then agreeing to requests from MSNBC, NPR and others.
The book also caught the attention of the Explorers Club, dedicated to field research and scientific exploration. He had joined as a member in 1984. The next year, he dove under the polar ice cap and planted the club’s flag. In January, the club made him a fellow, recognizing his scientific contribution from High Tide.
This past year has been a whirlwind of presentations to local groups, including the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation’s July sea-level rise symposium in West Palm Beach to the October Subtropical Cities Summit in Fort Lauderdale, and internationally with presentations in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
He also has a consulting business, the Sea Level Institute, where he advises businesses, governments and communities about the effects of sea level rise.
Englander, 63, tailors his talks to the scientific level of his audience. When he is talking before a community group, he gives simplified explanations. To a group at the New England Aquarium in September, he said, “I see myself as a translator that can take facts and make them understandable.”
One audience member there asked about the effects of sea level rise in Florida — whether it would be from salt-water intrusion into the water table or from the shoreline moving inland. His response: both.
The salt-water intrusion will occur first, he said. Eight inches of sea level rise will introduce salt water into the water table because of the porous limestone rock underneath. That drinking water problem will occur in the next two or three decades, certainly by the 2050, he said. Then the shoreline moving inland will happen in the latter half of the century.
For coastal communities such as Briny Breezes and Highland Beach that see standing water after rainstorms or tidal events, he suggests they assess their vulnerability now. “It will happen more and more often,” he said.
The limestone rock underneath South Florida also makes sea walls unlikely to hold back the surf, he said. But you can elevate the houses or commercial buildings.
Englander just finished updating High Tide. Among the revisions, it will contain an updated chapter on the sources of confusion that includes the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report, he thinks, underestimates sea level rise by the end of the century. The update was to be released on the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
The good news, he likes to say, compared to other disasters, such as Category 4 hurricanes, is that “we have decades of warning. … What other generation has the opportunity to re-engineer the world?”