Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Rising Seas: Working and living on the front lines of climate change

A handful of dedicated IBES scholars are working to trace the arc of global sea level rise: from the melting ice sheets, into the swelling oceans and onto the shores of vulnerable communities like Providence. Together, the researchers aim to chart a new course forward — staving off sea level rise where it is possible and fortifying the environments and societies where it is not.

A helicopter hovers just north of the Arctic Circle, preparing to deliver Laurence Smith and his colleagues onto the vast expanse below. The scientists disembark with hundreds of pounds of technical equipment, camping gear and cold-weather provisions, prepared to spend the next few weeks living on the slippery edge of a glacial ravine, engaged in a round-the-clock routine of eating, sleeping and collecting data. 

The ice

Smith, an IBES hydrologist and award-winning author, works atop the Greenland ice sheet, a relic of a colder global climate that only exists today because its high elevation keeps it frozen. And thanks to the steady warming of our planet, it is rapidly melting into the ocean, establishing what Smith calls a sort of “ground zero” for global sea level rise.

As he explains, ice sheets contribute to sea level rise in two ways: through calving of icebergs and glaciers, and through melting of the ice surface. 

And although climate change documentaries still feature frequent, dramatic footage of broken icebergs crashing into the ocean, that is no longer the primary way Greenland loses mass. Now, it's meltwater.

Smith and his team are the first to study this meltwater on the ice sheet itself — and it's not hard to understand why. Measuring the amount of runoff leaving the ice sheet via so-called supraglacial “rivers” is both treacherous and grueling. 

For one thing, the river’s slippery shores complicate the launch of the team’s precious technical cargo: a floating radar device called an acoustic doppler current profiler, or ADCP. 

In order to deploy it safely, the scientists use a helicopter to string a thick cable between the icy banks, creating a sort of clothesline from which the profiler hangs. Team members painstakingly draw the instrument back and forth across the water’s surface as its powerful sonic beams measure the raging river’s depth and speed. 

The scientists are leashed at all times as a matter of survival. And they do this work in shifts, for days at a time. 

“Our first time there, we did it for 72 straight hours,” recalls Smith. “The next time, we had teams rotating sleeping and collecting measurements, every hour, for a full week.”

Contrary to more optimistic theories that meltwater simply refreezes atop the ice sheet, the team’s unforgiving work has revealed that, once the ice melts, it’s likely gone forever.

"Virtually all of it does, in fact, escape to the ocean," Smith says.

The sea

The consequences for sea level rise are dire. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-led, global consortium of scientists studying the consequences of a warming Earth, ice melt and other processes caused seas to rise about two and a half times faster between 2006 and 2015 than they did between 1901 and 1990. 

Baylor Fox-Kemper, a member of the IPCC, is a physical oceanographer and an IBES fellow. He is also the coordinating lead author of the oceans, ice, and sea level chapter of the IPCC’s next assessment report, its sixth since 1990.

As he explains, industrialized nations across the planet can stem the tide of future sea level rise by taking swift and dramatic action to slow their greenhouse gas emissions; but even if all countries halted their emissions tomorrow, over the next few decades our oceans would continue to swell.

"We've already changed the system enough that we have committed sea level rise coming,” he says. "For the next 30 to 50 years it doesn't really matter what we do."

And under the far more likely scenario that countries don’t immediately stop emitting over the next few decades, sea level will continue to rise even past that.

"When we hit 2050, the rate of increase of sea level will be faster than it is now,” says Fox-Kemper.  “When we hit 2100, unless we make radical changes to our emissions, it is likely to be faster still. And if the ice sheets start to change in big ways, it may be many hundreds of years before sea level rise is done." 

According to Smith, the Greenland ice sheet is filling the oceans with more meltwater than any other source on Earth. But melting ice sheets are just one of the ways that a warming Earth results in greater sea level rise. 

More extreme storms that cause heavier rainfall cause lakes and groundwater reservoirs to overfill, sending water seaward. And warmer oceans compound the problem. Warm water takes up more space than cold water; with a (relatively) solid ocean floor, expanding, warmer seas have nowhere to go but up. 

If countries fail to take action on climate change, IPCC estimates from 2019 suggest that, on average, seas will rise a bit less than a meter or so by 2100 and anywhere from 2.5 to 5 meters by 2300. These numbers add up to catastrophe for communities all over the globe, especially in low-lying areas. 

Frontline communities, which are often communities of color, are more socially vulnerable because of income inequity and systemic racism. There's a deficit, and we need to make that up.

Curt Spalding Professor of the Practice of Environment and Society
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The forthcoming IPCC assessment, due to be published in 2021-22, will help nations with fewer resources get the information they need to prepare. 

"One of the big, new advances is an attempt to provide a global atlas of change,” Fox-Kemper says. “Wherever people live in the world, they will be able to find the IPCC’s best information about what climate change is likely to look like for them."

High-income countries that can afford to create their own climate models have long had the ability to incorporate IPCC data into their regional projections. In the United States, for instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) integrates its own forecasts with those of the IPCC in order to give finer-grain estimates of how climate change will impact communities on the local scale.

"Every coastal community in the United States has a regional hazards assessment done by NOAA about what climate change means for them," says Fox-Kemper. "They get really precise data coming from the U.S. government in addition to the IPCC."

The shore

Rhode Island, with its more than 400 miles of coastline, is one of these communities.

Every three years, the state gets an updated hazard mitigation plan courtesy of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. IBES fellow Curt Spalding, formerly New England’s regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Barack Obama, has assembled a team to bring this information and related data to civic and business leaders in the capital city of Providence.

The project, called the Providence Resilience Partnership, emerged from a January 2019 conference convened by IBES and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center. At the day-long event, business and civic leaders came together on Brown’s campus to learn about sea level rise and other climate change-associated risks from some of the best practitioners in the field. 

Today, the partnership aims to advance community understanding of climate change and develop strategies to equitably address looming hazards such as sea level rise, severe storms and heat waves in Providence. Its goal is to develop a more resilient city: one that will thrive, socially and economically, for the foreseeable future.

As Spalding explains, some of the fallout from climate change has already arrived in the Ocean State. Downtown Providence’s Waterplace Park regularly floods during exceptionally high tides, and the city’s stormwater systems often fail in response to severe weather events. 

And according to data from the U.S. government and from the IPCC, things are going to get much worse before they get better.

“The question is: how can we adapt the commercial section and the vulnerable neighborhoods of the city to repeatedly receive water?,” Spalding says. “In the short term, it may mean protecting the buildings with berms and even walls. In the longer term, we could create places for the water to go, or develop safer places with more efficient, climate-friendly housing for people to move to.”

Indeed, there are a variety of engineering approaches that could protect businesses in the heart of downtown Providence. But, as sea levels rise, so-called “frontline” communities elsewhere in the city — those that are both geographically and socioeconomically at-risk — may find themselves facing catastrophic flooding events on a monthly or even weekly basis.

Spalding is clear that any effort to increase Providence’s resilience to climate change must include substantial equity considerations. 

"It's not OK to simply protect your business section and let the neighborhoods get flooded all the time,” he says. “We need to understand that frontline communities, which are often communities of color, are more socially vulnerable because of income inequity and systemic racism. There's a deficit, and we need to make that up.”

But, as he knows, equitable resilience is not a foregone conclusion.

“It could be the case that the powerful interests get the money spent on their own risks, and then the more vulnerable communities just don't get the kind of support they need,” he says.

We live in a deeply unequal society, and our current policies deepen that divide. But I think there’s an awakening that’s happening... We're seeing strength in numbers amongst and between communities that are on climate change’s front lines.

Elizabeth Rush Visiting Lecturer of English
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This is not theoretical. Just ask IBES affiliate fellow Elizabeth Rush, who spent five years living alongside coastal communities impacted by sea level rise and the rapidly dissolving landscapes that they call home. In her highly-lauded book “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, she details the ways that such frontline neighborhoods have responded to governmental inaction by taking matters into their own hands.

"At least in some places, their vulnerabilities brought communities closer together,” Rush says. “Residents learned that they had to work together to address, and ultimately adapt to, the fact that the ground beneath their feet was fundamentally changing its shape."

Indeed, in the absence of effective policies at the top, grassroots strategies have arisen to provide equitable, strategic assistance to communities on the front lines of environmental change.

One such organization is Higher Ground, a network of more than 200,000 flood survivors from across the United States. Rush recounts the many local chapters that have secured funding for managed retreat or filed — and won — lawsuits against developers targeting vulnerable wetlands. 

“We live in a deeply unequal society, and our current policies deepen that divide,” she says. “But I think there’s an awakening that’s happening — that vulnerability to climate change is not arrived at by chance, and that it’s also shared. Through those twin recognitions, we're seeing strength in numbers amongst and between communities that are on climate change’s front lines."

The future

In “Rising,” Rush recounts her experience of returning again and again to Jacob’s Point, a tidal marsh just 14 miles southeast of Providence. There, she bears witness to a grove of bare black tupelos, each a casualty of surging sea waters.

“Out along the Narragansett Bay,” she writes, “a line of dead trees holds the horizon. Some have tapering trunks and branches that fork and split. Bark peels from their bodies in thick husks.”

Like the tupelos of Rush’s retelling, each consequence of climate change is a branch that forks and splits. Frontline neighborhoods are vulnerable not only to rising seas but also to poorer health outcomes and limited economic mobility. At-risk ecosystems are vulnerable not only to saline inundation but also industrial degradation and resource exploitation. Unsustainable human action has led to melting ice sheets, worldwide flooding and the marginalization of entire populations. 

As ecosystems become inundated and coastal neighborhoods confront their uncertain and doubtless unfamiliar futures, it could be said that sea level rise is causing the bark to peel away in more ways than one. 

"Traditional thinking about this would try to protect things as they are," Spalding says. "Well, you have to recognize right up front that ‘as they are’ is not good.”

But any change to the existing paradigm is likely to require a shift in the voices that control the discussion. 

"There are so many different ways of relating to the more-than-human world,” Rush explains. “Writing ‘Rising’ taught me to listen, to not go into every conversation with a set idea that I’m going to change someone’s mind about climate change if I tell them about parts per million or whatever.” 

“We know that that doesn't work,” she says. “Maybe what works is loosening your control of the narrative and showing up to listen to someone who hasn’t historically been part of the conversation.”

In Greenland, Smith and his team are not immune to the challenges of living and working in the era of climate change.

“The ice is melting a couple of inches a day where we work. There’s water everywhere,” he says. “The tents shade the ice, and the ice melts around them. After a few days, the tents are sticking up on little knolls.”

Under the blinding sunlight of an Arctic summer, the scientists pitch and repitch their tents. Much like the rest of the world, the ground is shifting under their feet.

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Laurence Smith is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environment and Society and a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Baylor Fox-Kemper is a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Curt Spalding is a professor of the practice of environment and society. Elizabeth Rush is a visiting lecturer in English.