Rising sea levels and apocalyptic fiction

Photo of Kulusuk, Greenland by Nick Russill, flickr/cc https://www.flickr.com/photos/nickrussill/146760303/

I’d always thought my song about the mountain dwellers ending up on waterfront row because of rising sea levels was not to be taken too seriously. It was an apocalyptic view of what might happen if it didn’t stop raining and, moreover, not a terribly original idea as it turned out. But the risk of flash flooding from above-average rainfall is only half the problem for people living down there, at sea level.

A loyal reader, visiting the coast from cooler climes down south was discussing his theories about rising sea levels and coastal tourist locations like Noosa, given news of the Arctic region’s third winter heat wave in a row. His attention had been drawn to Greenland, where temperatures have remained above freezing at a time of year when it should be at least 30 below. Clearly such weather extremes in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic region must accelerate the process of rising sea levels?

As The Independent reports, this is happening even though large parts of the Arctic Circle are trapped in perpetual darkness.

New global projections forecast a sea level rise of 2m by 2100, compared to a 0.74m rise in a 2013 study. So far, the forecasts that oceans would rise on average by 3mm a year has provoked a scornful debate between believers and climate sceptics. Yes, the science is not wholly believed. There are people in high places who have made naïve and disturbing statement such as “coal is good for humanity”, at a time when most scientists agree that CO2 emissions, produced largely from human activity, must be reduced.

The spectre of melting polar ice bringing an apocalyptic end to civilisation as we know it has been a favourite theme of science fiction writers for a long time. Now there is even a fiction sub-genre known as ‘cli-fi’ which has spawned many cataclysmic climate scenarios.

The spookiest forecast, before cli-fi was a thing, was The Drowned World, J.G Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962. Ballard’s main character is a scientist in charge of a floating research station, drifting above a submerged London, beset on all sides by encroaching tropical jungle. A 50th anniversary edition (with an introduction by Martin Amis) has been released and it is available as an ebook. I’ve not read it, though, relying on Peter Briggs’ review for the synopsis.

Ballard eerily conjured up a world where polar ice caps have melted and solar storms have left us in an irradiated world. Europe is a series of lagoons, devoid of human life, although the tropical bugs love it!

The most recent book in the cli-fi genre which I have read is The Ice by Laline Paull. Her 2017 mystery novel begins with wealthy tourists aboard the Vanir, traversing previously frozen Arctic oceans. The mission is to find a (now rare) polar bear, but instead they find the thawed body of an explorer who went missing years ago in mysterious circumstances.

Fiction aside, the alarming temperature rises in the frozen north have had a bizarre impact on Europe, the US and Canada in 2018, which at this time of year ought to be seeing the first thaws of spring. A day temperature of 1 degree celsius in Greenland might not seem too warm to us Aussies, but typically the days are often up to 30 degrees colder. And this is not confined to Greenland. The most northern US city (Utqiaguik, Alaska), has also been enjoying a balmy 1 degree celsius − again that’s 22 degrees above average.

Meanwhile,The Independent observed that a relatively high pressure system over Russia and the Nordic north and a relatively low pressure system across the UK resulted in freezing Artic air being drawn towards the UK and causing exceptionally cold weather there.

The chorus of Waterfront Row ponders: “Little did I think when I moved to the mountains, I’d end up on Waterfront Row, renting out my shed to all those who fled the torrents and the foment down below.”

Imagine my chagrin upon writing and recording this song to be told (by a country music fan), that the song was similar (in theme) to Graeme Connors’ A Beach House in the Blue Mountains. I had not heard of the song but googled it (as you do).

We’re not the only ones taking ‘cli-fi’ into the realms of songwriting. Sunshine Coast songwriter Noel Gardner made up this cheery tune about the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu. He takes the role of the climate sceptic to satirise the controversy about Tuvalu and rising sea levels.

Some years back, the tiny Pacific island nation was said to be so prone to inundation its citizens might have to become New Zealanders. As it happens, some 2,400 Tuvaluans have already moved to NZ or neighbouring islands, according to a not-for-profit group that monitors world poverty.

They may have moved too soon, if, as the article below says, Pacific atolls like Tuvalu actually grow and float, becoming impervious to rising tides.

Now, a study confirms what we’ve already known – atolls, and in particular Tuvalu are growing, and increasing land area, writes Anthony Briggs. “So much for climate alarmism”.

Nevertheless, the highest elevation on Tuvalu is 15 feet and it is perpetually exposed to rising sea levels, cyclones and tsunamis.

An article in The Conversation says previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have been conducted in areas where the rate of sea level rise is ‘average’ – 3mm to 5mm per year. A team of authors, led by The University of Queensland Senior Research Fellow Simon Albert unearthed outlying examples.

At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands, where sea level rises are in the order of 7mm-10mm a year, have been lost completely to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. A further six islands have been severely eroded. These islands range in size from one to five hectares and supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old.

Last year, new projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US revealed that global sea levels could rise by 2 metres by 2100 if emissions remain at their current levels. As the ABC reported, this is substantially higher than the 74cm increase proposed in a 2013 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Under these new projections, Sydney’s Circular Quay, Brisbane Airport, Melbourne’s Docklands and North Fremantle would be among locations at risk. So too Stradbroke Island, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, while in South Australia the seaside suburb of Glenelg would also be in trouble.

Scarier predictions have been made, with scientists taking into account the prospect of Antarctica melting, as well as the Arctic, doubling predictions of a 2m rise by 2100.

Should we care? By 2100, the youngest person I know will be 89, so maybe she will care. Her children and grandchildren definitely will.

And what does this mean for Australia, where the majority of the population live along narrow bands of coastal land on the east and west coasts?

You can scare yourself (or reassure yourself) by checking out this interactive website which allows you to see the predicted results of sea level rises wherever you happen to live.

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Cape Town water crisis a stark reminder for drought-prone Australia

Water stress map: www.wri.org creative commons licence

Cape Town’s water crisis is making news around the world, but nowhere should it be ringing alarm bells more than in our neck of the woods – South East Queensland. It’s not that long ago since the Millenium Drought (2001-2009) reached a dramatic point in late 2007. Brisbane became the first Australian capital to endure Level 6 water restrictions at a time when the region’s main reservoir, Lake Wivenhoe, dropped to 15% capacity.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the town water crisis is so parlous that taps were to have been turned off on April 16, but conservation efforts by the city’s 4 million people has pushed this out to June 4. Cape Town introduced Level 6 restrictions last month. Reports from the South African capital sound a bit like conditions in South East Queensland, circa 2007-2008.

The so-called ‘Day Zero’ – when water in Cape Town’s six reservoirs drops to 13.5% – means taps will be turned off and residents will have to queue at standpipes for daily rations. (Think dystopian movies like Young Ones or The Worthy).

A news report this week described a sudden sharp shower in Cape Town (10mm or so). People were said to have rushed out of restaurants, bars and shops just to feel the rain on their faces.

Residents are being encouraged not only to limit their showers but also to have baby baths over the shower outlet to collect the grey water for recycling. As was the case in Brisbane, Cape Town residents are being discouraged from washing their cars and flushing toilets (unless really necessary).

According to our local utility, SEQWater, during our own water crisis in 2007-2008, Brisbane residents successfully halved daily water consumption to 140 litres per person under Level 6 restrictions, which included a ban on filling pools. Gardens could only be watered with buckets (with water collected from those three-minute showers). The motto, ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ was nailed to many a dunny door.

Conditions are tougher in Cape Town, where residents are limited to 50 litres each per day. The Guardian reported that Cape Town’s water crisis was accelerated by a drought so severe it was not expected for another 384 years. Plans to diversify with more boreholes and desalination plants are not scheduled until after 2020. The city’s biggest reservoir, Theewaterskloof Dam, has mostly evaporated or been sucked dry since the drought began in 2015. The shoreline is receding at the rate of 1.2 metres per week, The Guardian reported.

Tucked away in its two-page feature on Cape Town’s water crisis was the colourful but completely unhelpful statement from an un-named homophobic pastor who blamed the drought on gays and lesbians.

Back home, South East Queensland’s water crisis in 2007-2008 ushered in a new era of water management, resulting in the SEQ Water Strategy, which set a water consumption target of 200 litres per day.

SEQWater spokesman Mike Foster says the biggest single change since the Millenium Drought was construction of a 600 km reverse flow pipeline network that allows treated water to be moved around the region. The utility also now has a ‘drought-ready’ strategy which is triggered when storage falls to 70%. Currently the region’s dam levels overall are at 75.9%, so nobody is losing sleep over the average per capita daily water consumption of 184 litres.

Baroon Pocket Dam spillway January 2011, image by Bob Wilson

FOMM wrote in March that water levels at our local dam, Baroon Pocket, had dropped to 46%. SEQWater supplemented the Sunshine Coast through an extended dry spell in 2017. Baroon Pocket Dam is now back to 78% (this photo of the spillway (January 2011) shows what can happen when 750mm falls in one month.

Blame it on climate change if you like, but the Sunshine Coast region has recorded below average annual rainfall in three of the last six years. What really did the damage was an eight-month stretch from July 2016 to February 2017 with an average rainfall per month of only 43mm. Source: Bureau of Meteorology monthly rainfall.

The South East Queensland Water Strategy aims to maintain regional water security into the future through management and operation of a water grid including a recycling facility and a desalination plant.

SEQWater owns and operates 26 dams, 51 weirs, and two borefields, including 12 key dams which supply as much as 90% of the region’s drinking water. Foster says SEQWater is now planning for far worse events than the Millenium Drought.

“Cape Town never thought they would experience more than two failed wet seasons in a row. South East Queenslanders never thought we would experience two failed wet season in a row either.

“But we went through the Millenium Drought and nearly a decade of failed wet seasons.”

Foster says that if SEQ was again faced with a Millenium Drought scenario, the strategies put in place would allow water supply to be maintained with medium level restrictions.

Meanwhile, in far more parched countries

You might feel relieved to learn that Australia was not one of 33 countries identified by the World Resources Institute as facing extreme water stress by 2040. However, Australia is one of six regions facing increased water stress, water demand, water supply, and seasonal variability over the next 22 years.

The top 11 water-stressed countries in 2040, each considered extremely highly stressed with a score of 5.0 out of 5.0, are projected to be Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Qatar, San Marino, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Lebanon.

The 2015 report forecasts rapid increases in water stress across regions including eastern Australia, western Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the North American West, northern China, and Chile.

Nothing focuses the mind on the need to conserve water more than a summer camping holiday in a water-scarce national park. At the Bunya Mountains national park, east of Dalby, bore water is available in the national park camp ground. But it is labelled ‘non-potable’ and visitors are advised to boil and/or sterilise the water before using. We have a 60 litre tank under our caravan and we also take two 10-litre containers as back-up. Even so, after five days the van tank was less than half full and by the time we drove home on a stinking hot Sunday, we were sharing the last few mouthfuls from a water bottle.

Fine, just walk into the Kilcoy IGA and buy some bottled water, right? Maybe not. In Cape Town, supermarkets were forced to introduce a per customer limit after a big run on bottled water.

You may recall I was enthralled a while ago by Ben H Winters’ series, The Last Policeman. This cli-fi trilogy depicts the urban chaos developing as the population wait for the cataclysmic arrival of an asteroid which will destroy the planet.

Winters expertly conjured up underlying tensions between survivalists, conspiracy theorists or escapists who have “gone bucket list” or found easy ways to do themselves in. Then there are those with no particular moral code. As of the policemen in Winters’ second book says: “Just you wait until the water runs out…”

More reading: The 11 cities most likely to run out of water




If it doesn’t rain soon, mate

Baroon Pocket Dam March 8, 2017 (Photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)

Conversations in the street of any Australian town often involve the weather, which over the past four months has been bereft of rain or “dry” (pronounced “droy.”

Tim: “How’s things, Harold?

Harold: “Droy, mate!”

Tim: “Got 10 points last night – hardly worth measurin’.”

Harold: “How’re dams holdin?”

Tim: “Nothin’ but mud and mosquitos.”

Mrs Harold: “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate, we’re gonna move back to the town.”

The latter is the narrator’s refrain from one of my songs; the laconic farmer, chin up as usual, watching the ABC. He’s being harassed by the banks, making do with pumpkin scones and home brew and tells the wife that if she must pay bills, pay the one with the lawyer’s letter – today.

Australian farmers are well-used to Continue reading “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate”