About Oceans

New England and PEI 2009 (106)Fear is a strong motivator.  We’re wired that way.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is justified in his fear of rising sea levels and he wants to do something about it.  Last June he received the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s (NMSF) Leadership Award for his work to protect oceans and combat climate change.   The following statement appears on his Senate Website.

For coastal states like Rhode Island, our oceans are a vital part of our economy and our history, and we must take smart steps to manage and protect them as a resource for future generations.

The sea is rising, and in some places the land is also falling.  Both are true for the Atlantic Coast of the United States.  This is not a new phenomenon.  Sea levels have been rising for at least 12 thousand years, and the long-term rate has remained relatively steady for as long as we have been monitoring it.  (There is large year-to-year variability.)  Furthermore, the Atlantic Coast of North America has been dipping down for at least that long, ever since the continental ice sheets began retreating at the beginning of the current interglacial.  As ice sheets retreat and melt, the water runs down hill to the oceans.  The continental crust that was under that enormous weight moves upward while fresh water is added to the worlds oceans.  Land surrounding and under the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay continues to rebound to this day.  At the same time, the Atlantic Coast is east of the pivot point of the rebounding continental crust, and so it dips down and will continue to do so until the ice returns during the next glacial period.  Complicating the issue somewhat is the fact that the Atlantic Ocean is also getting larger and wider.  Just visit Iceland to see the spreading mid-ocean ridge.  The igneous activity along the 40 thousand mile long global mid-ocean ridges is also releasing water and carbon dioxide into the oceans and into the atmosphere.

These geological processes as well as others are fairly well understood.  The rates of spreading and isostatic rebound have been measured quite accurately.  Every year, Europe is a little farther from New York than it was the year before, and Minnesota is a little higher.  At the same time, Japan is a little closer to California as the Pacific Ocean is closing.  It is also true that as the oceans warm, the water does expand.  Add all these process together and you understand the challenge addressed by Senator Whitehouse.

Now if Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is smart, he should be working on solutions that help our coastal communities adapt to these inevitable changes.  Unfortunately, he seems to be focused on combating climate change, an incredibly expensive battle that cannot be won.  I fear that he is fighting the wrong war.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
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