Pacific islands could be helped by MIT infra-red maps

Vaitupu is a tiny low-lying island of 1,600 inhabitants in the Pacific — part of the island nation of Tuvalu (red dot, left) — and one of the first places studied by a mapping project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to expose invisible risks.

The OpenIR project used infra-red images that could help planners with everything from disaster relief to coping with sea level rise.

Arlene Ducao and Ilias Koen, co-principals of the inspiring DuKode Studio, developed Vaitupu maps (below) from satellite images as part of an project (link to the final paper here) for a class Arlene and I attended run by the brilliant cyberscholar and activist Ethan Zuckerman. Vaitupu covers about 5.6 sq kms.

Arlene says the idea is that the maps “pop” — by using different infra-red filters they suddenly highlight the exact extent of things that are invisible to the naked eye, including hard surfaces (pink in the left-hand image) like roads or buildings that floods will run off.



Or they can highlight vegetation (red, right):



Or water (blue, left)



Knowing such factors can help emergency workers help plan relief efforts for a tsunami, a cyclone or an earthquake. They could also set benchmarks against which we can judge sea level rise and other impacts of climate change. My recommendation: get OpenIR!


Can art give clues to sea level rise?

Paintings by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch often give you a sinking feeling (see “The Scream”, left). But can art give clues to sea level changes?

Masterpieces by Canaletto and Bellotto in the first half of the 18th century have been used to document the subsidence of Venice, relative to its lagoon. But might paintings from past centuries be used as informal gauges elsewhere to show the rate of ocean rise? (…has anyone tried?)

For fun, here’s a comparison that highlights some of the problems.

Below is “Melancholy” painted by Munch in 1892 by the fjord in Aasgardstrand, the village in southern Norway where he lived, and at a time when photographs were still rare:

The dark shoreline seems to be seaweed with a thin wavy line along the beach that suggests a high tide mark. Below is a photo I took today of roughly the same place (I couldn’t find a sad-looking guy: he was probably looking even more morose indoors since it was pouring with rain).

Art experts at the house where Munch lived say that the rock on the right is the same as the big one in the painting — the smaller ones have been moved with reconstruction along the beachfront.

At first glance it looks like the sea has risen, right up to the large rock — it hasn’t. In the bottom photo it’s simply nearer high tide. Also, the land in south Norway is rising — maybe 30 cms a century — outstripping any effect of sea level rise since Munch was here. (The land is still rebounding after the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago removed a vast frozen weight).

So this simply shows some blindingly obvious objections — artists often aren’t trying to paint an exact scene…in the painting it might be low tide, high tide, etc…and changes in sea levels — an average 17 cm rise in the 20th century, according to the U.N. panel of climate scientists — vary locally.

Still, if sea levels rise as much as many experts fear this century, old masterpieces might get dusted off as evidence — and might be far more convincing to ordinary people than experts talking about tide gauges.




Rio summit: vague on climate change and sea levels

World leaders at the U.N. Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro said a lot of the right things about climate change and sea level rise (and many other aspects of how to promote economic growth that doesn’t damage the environment) — except details of what to do.

The final document at the June 20-22 summit was widely criticised as too much aspiration and too little action. That’s a shame for a once-a-decade summit attended by about 100 heads of state and government.

For a flavour, try some of the main references to sea levels and climate change in the leaders’ document, “The Future We Want”.

There’s this elegant get-out-of-jail phrasing about climate change: “We reaffirm that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we express profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally.” (…i.e. the alarm is only about the ‘global’ problem, not about rising emissions “by my country”).

How to tackle global warming change is of course being negotiated under the U.N. Climate Convention, but shouldn’t a big summit should give a clearer sense of the way forward?

And then this paragraph about sea levels: “We note that sea level rise and coastal erosion are serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries and, in this regard, we call on the international community to enhance its efforts to address these challenges.” (…no real hint of how, what, when.)

And the section about small island developing states (SIDS) says: “Sea-level rise and other adverse impacts of climate change continue to pose a significant risk to SIDS and their efforts to achieve sustainable development and for many represent the gravest of threats to their survival and viability, including for some through the loss of territory.”

And finally: “We emphasize that adaptation to climate change represents an immediate and urgent global priority.” (again, a ‘global’ priority lets a lot of people off the hook).






U.S. coasts — California faces fast sea level rise: “hot spot” already in Atlantic

Much of California could suffer sea level will rise of about a meter (39 inches) this century — faster than the global average — while there is already a “hot spot” of sea level rise on a densely populated 1,000 km (600 mile) strip of the east coast, studies show.

The separate reports are new evidence that city planners, governments, engineers etc will have a tangle of priorities and competing claims for money if sea level rise accelerates since the effects won’t be the same everywhere.

The west coast projections, in a report by the U.S. National Research Council, are bad news for low-lying areas such as San Francisco airport or Venice Beach (below) in Los Angeles, which might look ever more like the flood-prone Italian city of the same name.

And a recent acceleration of sea level rise along a strip of the east coast, to 3 to 4 times the global average (of about 3 mm a year), is affecting cities including New York and Boston, according to scientists writing separately in Nature Climate Change.

A slowdown of the Gulf Stream system that sweeps warm water northwards in the Atlantic seems to be the cause. (…of course that doesn’t mean that seas off the east coast can keep on rising at such fast rates throughout the century).


The west coast report also says that seas will rise by less than the world average in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Yet other worries are that a big earthquake could cause subsidence that lowers the coastline by a meter in one gigantic jolt.

“Sea-level rise is uneven and varies from place to place. Along the U.S. west coast it depends on the global mean sea-level rise and regional factors, such as ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, melting of modern and ancient ice sheets, and tectonic plate movements,” the council said.

For the California coast south of Cape Mendocino — a spot north of San Francisco — the committee projects that sea level will rise by 42 to 167 centimeters by 2100 (so a meter is about the middle of the range). For Washington, Oregon, and California north of Cape Mendocino, sea level is projected to rise by 10 to 143 centimeters by 2100, it said.

On the east coast, scientists write that “Our analyses support a recent acceleration of sea level rise on about 1,000‚ÄČkm of the east coast of North America north of Cape Hatteras. It said the hotspot was “consistent” with sea level rise expected by a slowdown of the Gulf Stream.

The report about California projects that world sea level will rise by 50 to 140 centimeters by 2100, a lot more than the estimate of 18 to 59 cms by the U.N. panel of climate scientists in 2007, which also said there was a possible extra of up to 20 cms if there are big changes in ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica.