Energy. Environment. Economy.

Delaware Estuary scientists fear Trump actions will accelerate sea-level rise

A front-end loader moves sand on Delaware Bay Beach in Middle Township, NJ that was badly eroded by Superstorm Sandy. Scientists working on water quality issues in the Delaware Estuary say actions by the Trump administration over the last several days have them worried.

Wayne Parry / AP Photo

A front-end loader moves sand on Delaware Bay Beach in Middle Township, NJ that was badly eroded by Superstorm Sandy. Scientists working on water quality issues in the Delaware Estuary say actions by the Trump administration over the last several days have them worried.

Scientists working to defend the mid-Atlantic coast from pollution, development, and sea-level rise fear they now have a new challenge: President Donald Trump.

The new administration’s early actions to scrap President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, promote fossil fuels, and muzzle social media use by the Environmental Protection Agency all unnerved scientists meeting in Cape May New Jersey this week for the biennial Delaware Estuary Science and Environmental Summit.

The state agencies, environmental nonprofits, academic researchers and local utilities represented at the three-day event have long included sea-level rise into their plans for wetlands and other areas of the region’s low-lying shores.

Last year’s Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions raised hopes that the expected rise in sea levels could be slowed if the historic accord by some 190 countries succeeds in slowing a rise in global temperatures and with it the expansion of ocean volumes as ice caps melt.

But signs that the Trump administration will withdraw the United States from the accord while taking steps to boost domestic production of fossil fuels prompted some participants at this week’s meeting to ask whether the vulnerable coast will be inundated sooner than they think.

Concerns about sea-level rise were highlighted in a keynote address by Dr. Ben Horton, a Rutgers University expert on climate change, who warned in a keynote address to the more than 300 attendees, that the mid-Atlantic coastline including the Delaware Estuary is especially vulnerable to the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Globally, he said the rate of sea-level rise is now faster than at any time in the last 2,000 years.

Despite the bleak outlook, the worst of sea-level rise could be avoided if all the signatories of the Paris accord including the United States meet their commitments to reduce carbon emissions, Horton said.

“This is a very, very urgent topic but there’s hope,” he said. “We can meet the Paris accord. The Paris accord was to keep global temperatures [from rising] more than 1.5 degrees C because we knew from the geological record that if you go above 1.5 degrees C you get the Antarctic ice sheet collapsing.”

Horton said climate change had been conspicuous by its absence from the U.S. presidential election campaign, and he mocked skeptics who deny that climate change exists or that it is caused by human activity.

“If you reject climate change, you reject gravity, you think the earth is flat,” he said, to applause from the audience.

Horton’s warning, coupled with the new policy signals from the Trump administration, unsettled some participants at this week’s meeting.

Alison Rogerson, an environmental scientist in the Division of Watershed Stewardship at Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the  developments raised new questions about longstanding plans for sea-level rise.

“We’ve always known that it’s going to be accelerated in the mid-Atlantic,” she said. “What’s more alarming is hearing that talk which gets us started off at this summit on that track, and hearing all these headlines that are coming out about changes on the national level with the new administration.”

Rogerson said the new federal actions suggest that climate policy is going into reverse.

“I just have a feeling that we are going to be going in the opposite direction than we need to go, and that the new administration is going to make decisions based on economic gain and discredit a lot of scientific evidence, and make human profit more of a priority,” she said.

Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency, called the Trump administration’s actions on the EPA, and its apparent rejection of global climate action, “the elephant in the room” at the conference.

He said the conference had learned about a connection between melting ice caps and local sea-level rise, and argued that federal participation is needed to combat climate change, however dedicated scientists are to dealing with the problem locally.

“We’re hearing that action at the federal level has taken a 180-degree turn since a couple of weeks ago,” Kauffman said. “You need the federal government to be involved in atmospheric warming issues. Sub-governmental units like states and counties and towns just can’t do it alone.”

“If one of the biggest drops out, then the whole thing could be undone,” he said. “How would the world solve its climate problem without the United States being a part of it? It’s inconceivable.”

Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the summit organizer, said Horton’s forecasts suggest that mid-Atlantic coastal wetlands will eventually be submerged but that doesn’t mean the scientific community should give up trying to defend them.

“We might say why are we working on wetlands at all because a lot of these places, if the scenario plays out like it seems like it may, will be under water,” she said. “But if you do that, you lose the fact that for hundreds of years these wetlands are going to be providing crucial services, producing fish and cleaning water and protecting local communities. It adds a time factor to our planning process that’s pretty difficult to get your head around.”

Despite the alarming sea-level forecasts issued by Horton and other scientists, they are so far in the future that they deter some people from taking action now, Adkins said.

“The time horizon is one of the challenging things about getting people to act on any aspect of climate change or sea-level rise,” she said.

Climate change and sea-level rise are expected to be important components of a new Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, a mission statement for the PDE and its partners that is now being updated for the first time since 1996 to reflect new realities. The document is due for completion by the summer of 2018.

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to unpublished data on sea level rise predictions for Delaware. The reference has been removed at the request of the researcher because the data has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed article. It referred to estimates of the impact on the state’s sea level rise due to the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, and did not reflect overall sea level rise.


  • JanW355

    It makes me laugh at the stupidity people, especially those with ‘scientific degrees’ believe they can stop the earth’s evolution with attempts like preventing the seas from rising. Have any of you geniuses realizes the changes this planet has made? I can understand how easy it is to collect complete morons to grow these ‘environmental groups’, like those who supported the Paris Agreement, and I can understand why news like Stateimpact thrives on this stupidity and ignorance. I thank President Trump for the reality he can give us now !

    • Itztlacoliuhqui

      The current rate of climate change is faster than at any time in human history. Past changes of the magnitude we’re now experiencing have only occurred during mass extinction events. We are causing these changes and can prevent further changes by stopping greenhouse gas emissions. Plenty of people are smart enough to understand that without a “scientific degree”. Shame you’re not one of them.

      • JanW355

        I have no doubt climate change is faster now in human history. Humans have only used energy source for a couple hundred years out of Earth’s age, over 4 BILLION years! Only a blink.
        Stopping greenhouse gas is not going to happen the way the Paris Agreement hopes. We will not stop using fossil fuels until we have something to replace them totally. Solar energy is a waste of time and money, wind is quite limited inland as well. There is a potential for ‘cleaner’ energy, but to agree to that today, with time limits on it, is insane.

    • NorthernTier

      You underestimate human capabilities, both to cause damage to and to remediate our environment. While it is not there yet, the hole in the ozone layer is closing.

      World Meteorological Organization Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project – Report No. 52
      “It has been recognized since the 1970s that a number of compounds emitted by human activities deplete stratospheric ozone. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was adopted in 1987 to protect global ozone and, consequently, protect life from increased ultraviolet (UV) radiation at Earth’s surface. …
      The Montreal Protocol and its Amendments and Adjustments have successfully controlled the global production and consumption of ODSs [ozone-depleting substances] over the last two decades, and the atmospheric abundances of nearly all major ODSs that were initially controlled are declining. Nevertheless, ozone depletion will continue for many more decades because several key ODSs last a long time in the atmosphere after emissions end. …”

  • Tom

    The only thing true in this article is that liberals fear things.

    • Wayne

      The title of this article is “Delaware Estuary Scientists fear…”, not “Liberals fear…”. Tom, since you seem to feel contempt for anyone who is not a nasty little Trump supporter as you seem to be, the only truth one may infer from your comment is that you, and those who are not politically “liberal”, to use your description, are contemptuous of science, and scientists. People, whether progressive, independent, “liberal”, or just plain capable of critical thought, already know that about you. Why bother to write your comment?

      • charlie K

        How can scientists tell us that we are in danger of been flooded by rising seas, when the sea-level rise I have observed during the last 70 years has been next to nothing?

        • Wayne

          Do you realize how hilarious your comment is? It reminds me of a cartoon I saw which has the Titanic radically tilted downward, bow in the water, stern a thousand feet up in the air, and the caption reads: “How can we be sinking when we are a thousand feet up in the air?” The actual rise in sea level has had relatively minor impact on the constant state of the bodies of water up to this point, to my understanding. That is projected to change over the course of the next 25? 50? years. The impacts now felt are the storm surges that will become more frequent and will increase in intensity. This will manifest itself in vulnerable areas first, and then continue to increase. Tell Tom I know this because I am not a scientist, or a liberal.

          • NorthernTier

            Google on
            fair-weather flooding Florida
            for info about this early warning sign.

    • NorthernTier

      It’s reasonable to have a healthy scepticism of someone whose opinions/actions are often based in (intentional) ignorance.

      • charlie K

        I Have been living close to the sea for more than 70 years;
        during this time the sea-level change that I have observe has been next to nothing.

  • agsb

    Satellites say the rate of rise is 3.2 mmyr and this was constant with Clinton, Bush, and Obama so I see no change with Trump.

  • charlie K

    “Delaware Estuary scientists fear Trump actions will accelerate sea-level rise”
    What sea-level rise?

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