Gulf climate change and irreversible sea level rise
West Antarctica might seem as distant from the Arabian Gulf as it is possible to go. The wind piles up ice crystals instead of sand dunes, and instead of turtles in the warm bath of Gulf waters, penguins hunt in frigid seas. But the Middle East’s carbon emissions are contributing to changes in West Antarctica – and now those changes are affecting the world from pole to equator.
In papers in Science and Geophysical Research Letters last week, researchers concluded that the West Antarctic ice sheet had passed a point of unstoppable collapse.
Unlike the massive continental ice sheet of East Antarctica, the West Antarctic ice sits in a depression with its floor below sea level. Stronger winds around the continent are pulling warmer water from deep in the ocean, causing the edge of the ice sheet to melt. Once detached from the rim that has been anchoring it, the rate of retreat will speed up.
The collapse is not rapid – it may take between 200 and 900 years to complete. But it appears to be inevitable, and will eventually raise sea levels by three metres or more. This is on top of an increase of 0.2-0.5 metres during the 21st century, and more beyond, from the melting of smaller glaciers and the expansion of seawater as it warms up.
But the implications go beyond the sea level rise itself. If the scientists are right, the disappearance of the West Antarctic ice is the first major irreversible change wrought by human-caused climate change on the face of the Earth. Even if we cease the emission of heat-trapping gases in the near future, the warm waters have advanced far enough to continue eating away at the ice sheet. Parts of other major ice sheets, such as Greenland, may also begin to collapse if temperatures keep rising.
What other uncomfortable surprises may we encounter as the world heats up? As the economist Martin Weitzman has argued, it is not the most likely and predictable changes, costing a few per cent of global economic growth, that should worry us about climate change – it is catastrophic shifts, unlikely but, should they occur, devastating to civilisation.
What does this mean for the Gulf?
Most obviously, it means that the GCC countries have to plan for rising seas over the long term. Kuwait City, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have large areas of valuable property close to sea level: the Abu Dhabi Corniche, Jebel Ali port, the West Bay financial district, oil platforms, pipeline landings and desalination plants.
They are wealthy countries that can afford improved coastal defences – but planning for relentlessly rising seas over centuries is an entirely different problem. They also need to consider the implications of increased flooding and salinity of farmland in low-lying, highly populated, politically fragile countries in their neighbourhood – southern Iraq, Egypt’s Nile Delta, Sindh in Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The small, hot, arid Gulf states need air conditioning, desalination and large food imports to sustain large populations in comfort. As we become aware of more irreversible tipping points, the pressure for drastic action on climate change will intensify. A major climatic disaster in a leading country – the United States or China – could rapidly change the debate. Climate sanctions on high-emitting countries might come into existence.
It makes sense for the GCC to reduce its vulnerability to sudden shifts in climate – whether in the physical world or the political one. For now, there are many easy options to boost the economy and climate resilience together – energy efficiency, low-carbon energy, economic diversification and robust infrastructure.
But ultimately, there will be some tough choices. As the ice blocks of West Antarctica collapse into the sea, it will not be enough to pile up concrete blocks along the Gulf coast.
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis
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Updated: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM