The Science Bookshelf, 2021
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
As we struggle to understand and come to terms with the accelerating rate of climate change revealed to us by, for example, the latest IPCC report, this book by oceanographer, explorer and climate change expert John Englander sounds a timely warning. The ice is melting, the sea levels are starting to rise and we all need to take heed. And take heed now! Englander says: Even the many passionate environmentalists advocating for ‘green energy’, pushing for recycling, getting plastics out of the ocean, concerned for wildlife and advocating for humans to have a lighter footprint on the planet, need to understand that preparing for substantially higher sea levels needs to be done in parallel with all those good efforts.
After millions of years of rising and falling with the various ice ages, by the time humans came on the scene the sea levels around the world had stabilized. So from the human perspective the coastline has always been a fixed and stable entity. After all, we describe the height of things, whether mountains or skyscrapers, by their height above sea level. As this author remarks, It was presumed that the height of the sea and the location of the coastline were solid, like bedrock. That presumption was wrong.
Let us not kid ourselves that it is only the world’s low-lying places like Venice, Miami, New Orleans and the Maldives that will be affected by sea-level rise. The predicted change will affect the entire world and its populations in more ways than we can even imagine and Englander lists many of them. He also warns us that it is all going to happen a lot sooner than we think so there is no time to waste. Don’t wait until the water is waist-high, he tells us. The time to develop ‘Plan B is right now.
This book gives us two main things. The first is a wide and deep explanation of all the complex science behind these admonitions, written in the sort of language a lay person like me can understand. I learned, for example, that because of the differing properties of salt water and fresh water, the melting of icebergs and floating icepacks makes no difference to water levels at all. It is the melting of fresh water, in the Antarctic to the south and Greenland in the north that will cause the rise we can predictably expect. This part of the book includes a lot of the general science of climate change as well, for example facts and figures about CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the function of trees and so on. For as we know, since our planet is a living organism, all these factors are intertwined and interdependent.
The second thing this book gives us is a wide-ranging discussion of the myriad ways in which these changes will affect all of us, everywhere, and suggests some of the preparations that we need to take. For many of us this might literally mean doing what the book title suggests and moving to higher ground while we still can. With entire towns and cities disappearing underwater there will inevitably be mass migrations, hordes of refugees, economic upheavals, and innumerable social problems, all of which we need to think about and start to make preparations for, on both individual and community levels. For example he reminds us that it is not only the thousands of coastal cities, towns and villages worldwide that will potentially be flooded but also the inland cities built on tidal rivers, of which there are many. In fact it would be easier to list the places not affected in some way. So as well as relocating we also need to educate, advocate, legislate, regulate and innovate.
One point that is very much stressed is the fact that since we cannot with any accuracy predict the timing and extent of sea level rise, not only should we start acting now but we also – particularly the engineers designing buildings and bridges etc. – would do well to plan for worst case scenarios, in the same way that the people of San Francisco all plan around the possibility of a major earthquake.
This is not comfortable bedtime reading by any means but I found it a very interesting, informative and very timely book.