`The First Global Warming Refugees'

 by   Dr  Wilson Flood



"The First Global Warming Refugees" is the title of an article that was syndicated in a number of newspapers including The Scotsman (20 September 2002) and The Independent in the UK. The article, written by Joseph Verrengia, was also run on CNN.com Science and Space and titled "Alaskan island falls victim to global warming". The article describes the plight of the village of Shishmaref which is located on the Bering Strait about 100 miles north of Nome (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Shishmaref Map

The article states that average temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 2.2C since 1971 and that, in some places above the Arctic Circle, temperatures have spiked by 5.6C since 1971. There is no explanation of why a single year has been chosen as the point against which temperatures are measured. This is not good practice it is much preferable to look at a trend. There is also no explanation of what the term "spiked" means. Was it one day in one place in 30 years?

On this website there is the temperature chart for Nome which will have very similar weather to Shishmaref and it is shown below. (Figure 2)

Figure 2 - Temperature history of Nome, Alaska

This shows the annual mean temperature and, although one should not select two single points it can be seen that the temperature in 1999 (the last year of this record) was lower than in 1907 and in fact was lower than in 1971. The most notable feature of the graph was the steep rise from 1977 to 1979 but temperatures have fallen since then. Was this the spike referred to ?  In fact given that total solar irradiation has been rising significantly since the mid 1970s (see graph from IPCC: The Scientific Basis, 2001) (Figure 3) it would be surprising if temperatures had not risen slightly in the Arctic.

Figure 3 - Solar Output from 1700 to 1995
(Total Solar Irradiance)

(It is worth pointing out in passing that the correlation between this graph and the temperature record for the Northern Hemisphere is quite remarkable.)

At this point the argument about Shishmaref becomes a bit confused. Although there is stuff about glaciers melting (solar powered?) and sea levels rising by 200 mm in the last hundred years, the main focus is that Shishmaref is slowly getting washed into the sea, with four houses toppling into the waves recently.   Why this is linked to global warming is not made clear; perhaps it is because the island is only 3 metres above sea level.

Figure 4 - Shishmaref aerial view

But in fact a clue to the problem lies in an aerial photograph of Shishmaref. (Figure 4).

The long smooth coastline on the right and the shallow lagoon on the left are highly characteristic of the phenomenon of longshore drift.  This occurs when currents push waves at an angle to a shore rather than straight against it. The effect is to wash away sand and gravel from one point and deposit them at another where the current is not so strong. The shape of the coastline suggests there is a current pushing along the right hand side and to the top of the photograph. Shishmaref is a victim of the normal erosion processes of the sea, not global warming.

Figure 5 - Spurn Head aerial view

The phenomenon of longshore drift is quite common. Whole villages in Eastern England have been washed away over the centuries and, just a few years ago, a hotel was filmed in the process of collapsing into the sea. Longshore drift has been responsible for the creation of the peninsula of Spurn Head in Yorkshire (Figure 5) which bears an uncanny resemblance to the top of  Shishmaref. In the case of Spurn Head the current is washing down the right hand side from the top of the photograph.



A very similar effect  to Shishmaref can be seen in this map of Findhorn on the Moray Firth in Scotland. (Figure 6).

Figure 6 - Findhorn

The coastline here is almost identical to that at Shishmaref. The current here flows strongly from east to west. Sand is being moved from the far right of the map and is being deposited in the form of dunes at Findhorn where the harbour is silting up. The fast flowing River Findhorn is all that is stopping the estuary from closing completely.

The newspaper article makes no mention of the longshore drift process at Shishmaref and in fact, despite the headline, there is little mention of global warming.  The US army has a $3 million plan to build a breakwater which suggests that the US government recognises the real nature of the problem.  This is once again an example of media distortion, of ascribing every change in a landscape to global warming without advancing any evidence to support the assertion. Too much emphasis is placed on anecdotal evidence of climate and not enough on actual temperature data.


Rising sea levels or falling land levels

Newspapers often carry reports that predict that land will be submerged by the sea due to rises in sea level caused by global warming. But land can also be submerged due to the fact that it is sinking.

Figure 7 - Post glacial rebound

The Times (London, 11 October 2002) carried an article by the Environment Editor that described how the east and south east coasts of England are at threat from rising sea levels due to , you guessed it, global warming. The article estimated that the seas around Britain would rise by between 21 and 41 cm by 2050.

However the article made no mention of post glacial rebound.  This arises as a result of land areas being compressed under the thick sheets of ice during the last ice age.  As the ice melts the land slowly rises where the ice was thickest and other surrounding areas sink. The map (Figure 7) shows that Scotland is rising in some places at an estimated 3mm a year. The evidence for this is that the geography of Scotland is characterised by what are known as "raised beaches". There are two levels, the 10 metre and 30 metre raised beach, both marked by a line of ancient cliffs now some distance inland, and these show how the land has risen in the past. Conversely the south of England is sinking at 2 mm a year, which, over a century, adds up to 20 cm, close to the prediction for global warming sea level rise.

In the IPCC 2001 Technical Summary ( www.ipcc.ch/pub/wg1TARtechsum.pdf ), figure 6 shows sea level changes over 2-300 years at a number of ports Liverpool, Brest, Amsterdam, Sheerness and Swinemunde. All these ports are in areas where the land should be sinking as a result of the Caledonian and Scandinavian ice caps but this is not mentioned in the document. The rate of change is exactly in line with what might be expected from post glacial rebound. At one other port, Stockholm, the data has been adjusted up to 1873 for post glacial rebound because Stockholm is rising rather than sinking. It is not clear why there is no adjustment after 1873 but it is clear that there is no rise in sea level up to 1873 and very little after that.

We know that temperatures have risen in the last 350 years mainly due to an increase in solar activity so we should expect some sea level rise but more land has been reclaimed from the sea as a result of drainage and diking than has been lost. What is rather sad about the situation in England is that the Environment Agency is accepting inundation as a fait accompli and is refusing to spend money on improving sea defences. The Agency has told farmers to expect some of their land to return to salt marsh and needless to say a lot of farmers are not happy. The only people who are happy are the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who will see an increase in marshy environments suitable for certain bird species.  Indeed you could be excused for thinking that UK Government policy with respect to climate change is largely determined by the RSPB.  At Freiston Shore on the Wash, 200 acres of farmland were deliberately flooded when diggers broke through the flood defence banks to create a salt marsh bird reserve.


A new phenomenon

Will Shishmaref be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak?  The Shishmaref islanders are seeking $100 million to be relocated 5 miles to the east.  And Tuvalu islanders are seeking compensation for supposed rising sea levels (see this site). Are we about to witness a new wave of refugees demanding their "rights" to resettle, or seeking redress from oil companies or the USA for supposed greenhouse gas induced sea level rises whether or not these rises are real or imagined?  It is important for them and their lawyers to keep the greenhouse gas theory to the fore because that gives them a case.  If the warming we have witnessed in the last 300 years is mainly due to completely natural sources (ie the sun) then they have no case at all; they can hardly sue nature.

As long as there is no sustained and well constructed counter argument against the wilder prophecies of the greenhouse warming advocates then we will continue to see money and time being wasted in chasing inappropriate solutions to a non-existent threat.  The media in particular are spreading misinformation in the most irresponsible manner.  To fully understand the issues discussed here a knowledge of a range of disciplines is needed.  Focussing on one aspect (global warming sea level rises) may provide a seductively neat analysis of the problem but the outcome is a wrong conclusion for the wrong reason.  Papers published on this site have shown that adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere must cause some warming by their very nature but it has also been argued that the contribution, even for a doubling of carbon dioxide, would be very small and could not be easily distinguished from normal temperature variations.

October 2002

FastCounter by bCentral

Return to Climate Change Guest Papers Page

Return to "Still Waiting For Greenhouse" Main Page