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Sea levels could rise three feet by 2100, study projects

Antarctica is losing ice three times faster than it was in 2007 as greenhouse gas emissions by human activity contribute to global warming. A study in Nature says that sea levels could rise between three and six feet by 2100, with Antarctica contributing at least six inches if its ice melt continues at the current rate. Dr. Benjamin Strauss, president and CEO of Climate Central, joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    Antarctica, a continent of snow and ice, is now losing ice three times faster than it was in 2007. In a new study published last week in the journal Nature, more than 80 scientists from multiple countries use satellite data to examine the Antarctic's vast ice sheets, and their prediction is that if the current rate of ice melt continues, sea levels could rise six inches by the year 2100. Joining us now for more on this study and the consequences of sea level rises [is] Benjamin Strauss the president and CEO of Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists that research and report on the changing climate. So first of all, this is a steady drumbeat, we've heard about sea level rise for years. How consequential, how significant is this particular study and what did it look at?

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    So first thing I'd like to point out is that Antarctica is just one part of the story. So we have six inches of contribution from Antarctica if it continues to shed ice at the rate that was measured. But there are other sources as well. So all together, we will be looking at three feet.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    Three feet of sea level rise by the year 2100. That is consequential to hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal cities all over the planet.

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    Right. Yes it is. We're already seeing floods increase. Yesterday, for example, there were floods at at least a tide gauges around the United States, almost all of which wouldn't have happened without the sea level rise that we've already seen.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    What is it that is convincing these scientists that the rates are changing. What are they studying? What are they looking at, how can they tell?

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    You they have a lot of direct measurements from satellites of the height of the surface of the ice sheets, so they're able to see how that height changes over time. There are also amazing satellites which in fact measure the gravitational pull of the ice sheet and therefore how much ice is there. So those are the two main forms of measurement.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    There are the climate science deniers who will say look at the east side of Antarctica, it looks on a map like that there's actually more ice coming in. Doesn't this all balance itself out?

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    We do anticipate that in the future snowfall will increase in East Antarctica and I certainly hope so. But this study shows over recent decades it hasn't. In fact we've seen a drop in snowfall.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    So if you take a look at some of the maps that you have on your own site, and you take a city like Miami that we're all familiar with, it's a coastal city, and you ratchet up the scale to three feet more water, you see huge parts of what we consider to be the city of Miami underwater.

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    That's right, South Florida is severely at risk particularly because they're bedrock is porous. So even if you built levees or protected walls, water would push underneath them come up through the ground. So there are really high stakes here.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    Even up here in the Northeast much closer to New York City, Newark, the areas around on the coastal waterway, are severely impacted.

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    A lot of the airports nationwide and coastal cities are built on marshland. A place that's low and flat and unobstructed and away from other buildings. A lot of them already have levees around the edges, and three feet is difficult but manageable in most places. May not be manageable on South Florida. If on the other hand we continue to see the ice speeding up, and we don't cut back on our climate pollution emissions, then we're pointed more toward six feet, possibly, and that will be unmanageable in very many places.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    Also the effects that we're seeing of sea level rise, of climate change in a global capacity. This is because of the carbon that we've already put into the atmosphere not just exactly what we're doing today. So even if everyone stopped driving, and all the factories shut down and somehow we didn't produce CO2, we're still going to see the effects of climate change.

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    Yes we are. Unfortunately, once the carbon is in the atmosphere, most of it stays for hundreds and thousands of years. I think for most people, you imagine we have this problem if it ever gets really bad that it's hurting us drastically, we'll simply stop, we'll fix it in a few years. But the carbon keeps on insulating the earth, heating the earth more for hundreds and thousands of years. I'd say that at a minimum, we have five more feet of sea level rise baked in and probably a good deal more. If we control our pollution now, we can really slow it down a lot and make it more manageable, and that's the name of the game. Slower change will be much more manageable than the fast change that is possible.

  • HARI SREENIVASEN:

    All right, Ben Strauss of Climate Central, thanks so much.

  • BENJAMIN STRAUSS:

    Thank you.

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