Mississippi Bay? No more Florida?

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 9/17/13

The National Geographic magazine has great photos and I always learn something from it. But the September issue is terrifying.

The cover story, entitled “Rising Seas,” discusses the damage done on the east coast last year by Hurricane Sandy …

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Mississippi Bay? No more Florida?


The National Geographic magazine has great photos and I always learn something from it. But the September issue is terrifying.

The cover story, entitled “Rising Seas,” discusses the damage done on the east coast last year by Hurricane Sandy (not a big storm by Gulf coast standards, but there was more to destroy in New York than here), how the lowland Dutch protect themselves from encroaching sea water, and — this is the terrifying part — what the future may hold.

Sea levels are rising because the earth is warming. Last year was the ninth hottest year on record (records go back to 1880) and eight of the nine hottest years have come since 2000.

A hotter atmosphere causes higher sea levels in two ways: warmer water expands and takes up more space than cooler water, and warmer air causes the polar ice caps and glaciers to melt, with the runoff flowing into the oceans.

Sea levels reached record highs in 2012 and have been increasing worldwide at an average rate of 3.2 mm per year over the past two decades.

The hotter temperatures are due to the increase of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These gasses are produced from the burning of carbon-based fuels, mainly oil and coal. And as the earth’s population continues to increase and the economic recovery gains traction, it’s likely that even more such gasses will be emitted into the air.

None of this is news. We’ve known it for decades and we try not to think about it. But then comes this month’s National Geographic with a fold-out map showing where shorelines will be if all the polar and glacial ice melts.

Sea levels will rise by 216 feet. The entire state of Florida will disappear under water. The lower Mississippi River basin will become a bay off the Gulf of Mexico roughly 100 miles wide, reaching as far north as Memphis. Mobile Bay will expand, covering Mobile and Baldwin counties and much of central Alabama. Many coastal cities around the world will vanish, displacing billions of people. (But good news for Detroit, which could use some: the Great Lakes, at 600 feet above sea level, will be unaffected.)

Granted, that’s a worst-case scenario. All the planet’s ice probably won’t melt, and certainly not soon, but we’re headed in that direction. Scientific projections of what actually will happen, based on current data and trends, vary greatly, depending on forecasters’ assumptions about politics, economics, population growth, etc. The lowest estimate is that by the year 2100 sea levels will rise by 7 inches; the highest estimate is 6.5 feet. If the latter projection comes true, Miami will be submerged at high tide.

Why do we continue to burn these fuels? It’s because we’re shortsighted, like a man whose house is cold and who decides to tear down his wooden garage and burn it in his fireplace, then burn his furniture. That would temporarily solve the problem of the man’s chilly house and provide new jobs (for wood choppers). But ...

What to do? Perhaps my wife and I should stop visiting our grandchildren who live 1,000 miles from here. We usually fly to see them, and airplanes are major emitters of heat-trapping gasses.

But we’re not going to stop visiting our grandkids, and even if we did, Delta would probably fly that jet without us. It will take more than two geezers cutting back on travel to halt global warming and rising seas.

A world-wide carbon tax would be the sensible thing to do. People who burn carbon-based fuels would have to pay for the damage they cause. The money from the tax could fund the development of mass transit systems, vehicles with higher gas mileage, and renewable, non-carbon-based energy sources.

The downside of a carbon tax would be that, for a while, it would raise the price of everything and create economic burdens. This could be softened by introducing the tax gradually and using some of it to subsidize fuel costs for the poor. But the very word tax is anathema to some people, even a tax to save the planet as we know it (another example of our shortsightedness).

Me? I’m buying flood insurance.

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at courier@gulfcoastnewspapers.com.