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World Bank ponders impact of sea level rises on developing countries

World Bank ponders impact of sea level rises on developing countries Anthony Harrington

Proponents of global warming have long warned of the potential for sea levels to rise one to three meters over the course of the present century. Now analysts from the World Bank have put together a working paper: The impact of sea level rise on developing countries: a comparative analysis. But first, to put the study in context, let us consider a report from The Independent, published on 07 January which focused on a study of the impact of melting ice sheets on sea levels, carried out by Professor Jonathan Bamber of Bristol University, and colleagues.

The study was published in the journal Nature: Climate Change. What the study highlights, it seems, is the difficulty of predicting quite how fast the world's ice sheets are melting. The real concern, according to Professor Bamber, is that instead of melting raising sea levels by around 29 cm (not 1-3 meters, note) by 2100, accelerated ice sheet melt could add another 83 cm, making a total of just over one meter.

As the Independent puts it, "... glaciologists believe that there is a one-in-20 chance of sea levels rising by a meter or more by 2100..."

"The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contain about 99.5% of the Earth's glacier ice and could raise sea levels by 65 meters if they melted completely - although experts think this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, a survey of the world's top 26 glaciologists found most believe melting of the ice sheets could be more rapid and severe than previously estimated..."

It is always hard to tell with these reports that look factual but actually turn out to be based on opinion and finger-in-the-wind speculation whether one is reading a ghost story or something that deserves serious attention no matter how fuzzy and indistinct the science that supposedly grounds the report might be (a survey of 26 people is a media event, not science). However, what the World Bank report does is to say: OK, let's say that sea levels did rise between 1 and 5 meters. What would that do to developing countries?

The results show that the effects and consequences of sea level rises are extremely skewed, with severe impacts being limited to a relatively small number of countries. However, for these countries the impact will be potentially catastrophic. The countries affected in this way include Vietnam and The Bahamas. Some large countries, including China, will also face extremely severe consequences. East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa will be hit hardest. The World Bank also found that there is, as yet, almost no serious planning going forward in countries that will be affected, to enable populations to adapt to the coming changes - assuming they are coming, that is.

The World Bank study contains a couple of scary possibilities that would accelerate sea level rise fairly dramatically. One that they cite concerns the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS). At present WAIS is anchored on bedrock, but the possibility exists that WAIS may not be that stable. Human induced global warming could cause the WAIS to slide off the bedrock and into the ocean. An ice sheet of that immensity winding up in the ocean would displace huge volumes of water without it necessarily having to melt to any large degree. If this were to happen sea levels could rise five to six meters in very short order, how short no one quite knows.

The problem this kind of study poses for businesses across all sectors and sizes is that it is impossible to respond in any meaningful way to the scenarios being sketched out. Pulling out useful strategic directives from browsing the World Bank study is extremely difficult.

"Try to avoid having too much of your business tied up with clients or suppliers in very low lying coastal plains," might be one gem to take away, but who, seriously, is going to forego a business opportunity today on a one-in-twenty chance of an adverse sea level rise sometime in the next 87 years?

Further information on global warming and catastrophe insurance:

Tags: Antarctica , developing countries , East Asia , glaciologists , global warming , Greenland , ice sheets , sea level rise , The Bahamas , World Bank
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  1. john-englander says:
    Tue Apr 09 21:34:28 BST 2013

    This is a good article, The reality may be even worse than what is suggested. As I point out in my recent book, "High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis" nearly all the scientific projections about SLR for the last two decades have been low, as have the forecasts for the disappearing polar ice cap. The models generally understate things. As noted, the two greatest potential accelerators for SLR are particular glaciers in West Antarctica, and the methane release, which is hundreds of times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Neither are considered in the current projections. Both are quite real. The possibility of catastrophic sea level rise is a scenario to which more attention needs to be paid. While no one wants to be alarmist, the possibility of catastrophe may be higher than the 5 percent figure cited. We can't know for sure, as Earth has not warmed this quickly in five hundred million years. We are running the experiment now to see how quickly we can melt the two great ice sheets. For more, please see my blog, There is a new free Special Report, 10 Lessons from Superstorm Sandy, free for signing up for the blog.

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