Ocean Levels Rise as Drought Grips California

  • Published on March 13th, 2009


Water science is a funny old business, but not in the amusing sense of funny. The World Water Forum has not been a barrel of laughs in recent years: whether you specialise in aquifer depredation, freshwater salination, chemical leaching, water based conflicts or polar cap melting, there’s been not a great deal of good news to share with the rest of the world.

Global warming forces natural resources into unnatural conditions, and the people who rely on them are similarly forced into unnatural positions. In California, the Director of the Department of Water Resources has expressed concern about the highs and lows of water – literally. Los Angeles had only three inches of rainfall in 2007, but 37 inches in 2005. Now California has an Emergency Drought declaration and water rationing is on the cards: freshwater extraction from rivers has been limited to try and save fish stocks, but that means that farmers are facing crop failure at a time when the economic recession could be costing 95,000 jobs in agriculture across the state. Around four-fifths of California’s water is used in agricultural production and the Governor wants to build new dams to try and trap more water from the Rockies.

California faces drought or drown scenario

But parched soil and poor soil maintenance as a result of unfarmed land presents a further terrifying hazard – if those 37 inches of rainfall that fell in 2005 were to fall on drought stricken, plant-free soil, the resulting flash floods could devastate Los Angeles, washing out roads, bridges, buildings and airports because the baked earth wouldn’t be equipped to soak up the water.

And yet, on the other side of the equation, new calculations suggest that around 600 million people – that’s 10% of the global population – are at risk of life or livelihood loss as oceans rise as a result of climate change.

Warm oceans act like magnets on ancient glaciers

The current estimates suggest that sea levels will rise by at least 20 inches by 2100 and could rise as much as 39 inches.  As the oceans increase their rate of warming, and expanding, they are accelerating the rate of ice sheet melting and that in turn, is causing a faster rate of mountain glacier melting because as the sheet ice warms and melts, it literally pulls ancient glacial ice down into warmer regions where it too, melts.

The really frightening thing is that the current rate of sea level rising is well beyond any of the projected models – not only is it faster, but it’s more widespread – no area of the world is now unaffected by the accelerating pace of ocean change. Unless we act soon to change our behaviours, we may cross into the territory of no return, where no human action, no matter how extreme will be able to limit, let alone reverse, the sea level rise. And that would mean the 10% of the global population who live in threatened areas having to find homes elsewhere: often in places like water-stressed California.

American flood by U.S. Geological Survey at Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence

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  • Dave D

    I would guess that with the inactive sun, growing polar ice cap, growing glacier in Greenland and expanding ice mass in Antarctica, someone should offer the folks from Kiribati a "good deal" on their submerged island! It may be a risin' sometime soon.

    Or do Islands "dissolve" once they are covered – oops my bad.

  • Hmmm, not quite true – Kiribati, in the Pacific, is a small island state which has actually had two of its islands vanish completely under the waves since 2005. and while it's true that the process of sea level rising has flattened in the past two years, over the last hundred years, sea levels have risen ten times faster then their 2000-year average. That's quite an increase. The flattening rise curve reported for 2006-2008 doesn't mean sea levels aren't still rising – it just means that for 24 months they haven't risen discernably in the measured areas, which could be as much due to ocean current changes and the El Nino effect as anything else. Try telling Kiribati's citizens that there isn't a problem!

  • JC

    Sea levels haven't risen in the last two years. Do your homework before publishing alarmist, faulty statistics.