Sunday, November 18, 2007

kayaking below sea level

“Watersheds are difficult places to map, and for that reason (among many others) they are the most fascinating places in the world to explore – debatable lands.” William Bliss, 1935, from the book “Rapid Rivers”.

The Seattle Times today names Seattle as one of the many cities in US to have made efforts to meet the targets of the Kyoto treaty. On a national scale, the current White House doubts there could be such a thing as global warming (“the science is unproven”); hence the refusal to make any move to reduce emissions in case it might “harm US jobs”. According to Max of the Associated Press, “world’s top climate experts” warn that carbon dioxide levels already in the atmosphere commit the world to an average rise in sea levels of up to 4.6 feet above those experienced before the industrial revolution. That’s the rise they expect if polluting factories were shut down today and cars were taken off the roads; we’re already committed to 4.6 feet.
Imagine a gradually rising sea level flooding some homes while others further inland become waterfront property, in the meantime the weather changing a bit and up to 70 percent of all plant and animal species have become extinct, as predicted. Check the plant nursery catalog… we might have to change the type of grass that makes the lawn.
Let’s look at another idea… a slightly different scenario described by the so-called “Ancient Mariner” in William Bliss’s whitewater kayaking (and white-water canoeing) book “Rapid Rivers”. Back in the 1930’s he forecast the mountains of England and Scotland protruding from the sea as; “… a wheen scatter o’ rocky islands!” Anticipating this rise in sea level he prudently bought up foreshore along sections of coast in Australia and South Island New Zealand on the assumption that since the sea level in the Southern Pacific Ocean is currently higher than that of the north Atlantic, and because the retreating ice around the north pole leaves it much thinner than the ice at the south pole, the imbalance would eventually cause the earth to flip pole for pole and cause the sea level to, well dare I say “level out”? At which time… the foreshore he had purchased “down-under” would become land which he would own up to the new high-water mark, considerable tracts since he chose areas with shallow sea, while the land he had sold in Scotland to finance his purchases would rest deep beneath the waves. That land would be worthless. I expect he’s dead by now, seeing as he was old in the 1930’s, and the flood hasn’t happened yet, otherwise I’d love to ask what he thinks about it all now. You’ll have to read “Rapid Rivers” to get more of his story; most of the book consists of gripping accounts, (or perhaps “quaint” would be a better adjective) of first descents of British rivers in the early days of white-water paddling. 
Rapid Rivers by William Bliss, published 1935

But more about rising sea levels; London already built a flood barrier across the Thames to prevent storm surges, which, fueled by the combination of low atmospheric pressure, high tides and wind pushing the North Sea into the land-funnel of Dover Strait, and into the Thames Estuary, occasionally threatened to put London underwater. Since devastating floods in the 1950’s the Netherlands built dikes along the coastal islands, and barriers between, to protect the lowlands of Holland against the same threat. In Holland, pumping the enclosed land dry has caused the land to shrink, not in area but in volume. In places the land is already more than 14 feet below sea level. Given a rise in sea level of 4.6 feet I can imagine Florida either substantially flooded or else, barricaded by dikes, surviving like Holland below sea level. Likewise vast areas of Georgia, the Carolinas… well, you can figure out where the low spots are!
A canal in Delft

Ten ago, 1997, Sea Kayaker Magazine published an article about kayaking below sea level. (I just posted it to my web-site.) 1997: the year of the Kyoto Protocol. We are at a watershed; our decisions now make a difference. In another ten years of global warming, 2017, when the residents of Asia’s large cities are predicted to be at great risk of flooding, we might be able to kayak below sea level in our own back yard.


David said...

Last week the Norfolk Broad very nearly bacame a mermaid... but was saved by a dyke.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nigel, great article!

Please write more, share that knowledge! : )

Kri Kri said...

What is happening?! We live on a ridge and last week there were 2 inches of water covering the basement floor! It took half the day to vacuum it out. Maybe we need a dyke too!