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Oceanographer sounds alarm on sea levels

  • Oceanographer John Englander speaks on "Our Global Warming Crisis and Rising Seas" Tuesday evening at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

    Oceanographer John Englander speaks on "Our Global Warming Crisis and Rising Seas" Tuesday evening at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

  • Oceanographer John Englander speaks on "Our Global Warming Crisis and Rising Seas" Tuesday evening at the Academy of Music in Northampton.

The harrowing weather disturbances of the past few years — marked by devastating forest fires, droughts, heat waves, tornadoes and hurricanes — are enough to convince scientists and nonscientists alike that climate change is real, and getting worse.

For John Englander, an oceanographer who worked with Jacques Cousteau and has taken part in expeditions in Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic, with deep dives in research submarines, the dramatic rise in sea levels is in itself proof of long-term climate change, a phenomenon that we need to recognize and act on.

Englander, whose “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis” was published a week before Hurricane Sandy clobbered New York City and the New Jersey shore, the effects of which it forewarned, will be in Greenfield for a screening of the environmental documentary, “A Thousand Invisible Cords” today at 8 p.m. in Greenfield Community College’s Sloan Theater.

He will also speak Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton presenting information about the rapid acceleration of melting ice on our polar caps, rapidly rising oceans and their accumulative effect on the future of the Eastern Seaboard coast and global warming.

“This is something that’s never happened in human history,” warned Englander, whose Sea Level Institute works with corporations, government agencies and community organizations to prepare for what he says is the inevitable rise of ocean levels. “It’s the most disruptive change we’re going to face in terms of the physical planet, because it’s going to move the shoreline inland, and not only affect coastline from the Maldives to the Bahamas, to Miami, places that 200 years from now won’t be here.”

Englander’s visit to Greenfield and Northampton is sponsored by Greenfield environmental activist Douglas Wight’s “National Alliance of Concerned Americans for the Wellbeing of All People and Earth.” Wight, whose activism seeks public attention to stop climate change, says, “To me, this is the biggest issue in the world. If we don’t get this right, will anything else matter?”

Englander’s book, for which Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel Cousteau, wrote the foreword, says the public is almost unaware of the problem that shorelines will significantly shift and sea levels will dramatically rise by 2050. After 6,000 years of minimal change in sea levels, Englander writes, we have entered a new era of rapid sea level rise.

For at least 5 million years, those ice-age cycles have been fairly regular every 95,000 to 125,000 years, Englander maintains, with more snow getting packed down into ice sheets two miles thick and then, over tens of thousands of years, melting down as sea levels rise.

“We don’t see it in a human time scale,” he said in a recent interview from his home in south Florida.

We had been trending toward the next ice age with cooling causing ice sheets to grow longer and thicker, Englander says, but then greenhouse-gas emissions sent average global temperatures rising, with ice sheets retreating and sea levels deepening.

Meanwhile, average ocean temperatures are also climbing, helping to alter seasonal air and ocean currents, thereby affecting weather patterns.

But despite growing consensus among the world’s scientists, making the complex science clear to the global population hasn’t been easy, Englander says.

“We tend to judge reality and the future based on what we’ve known in our past. Sea level’s been stable for 6,000 years, which is pretty much the history of human civilization. We didn’t have the perspective to see the sea-level change physically; therefore we tend to dispute it.”

Also, the ramifications of taking action are troubling for many people.

“For many people, we don’t want to rock the boat, if we’re making money, whether we have jobs in the oil industry or the coal industry, or if Al Gore said something that we don’t like politically,” he says. “There are all sorts of reasons people don’t want to listen to this, or because it means changing our lifestyle … For all these reasons, this is disruptive and we don’t like that. When you go to the beach, you think it’s always been there and always will be.”

Yet New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pointing to $19 billion in damage to his city from Hurricane Sandy, has proposed $19.5 billion in flood barriers, new building codes and other measures to protect against the sea, which scientists have predicted could rise by as much as 31 inches by 2050. In Europe, Amsterdam is creating flood plains and rebuilding mangrove swamps to prepare for rising sea and river levels.

“I always say to people, ice melts at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, it’s going to melt,” Englander says. “And if you melt enough ice, it’s going to raise the ocean level. It’s already risen almost 8 inches in the last century and the rate is increasing.”

On the Web: www.johnenglander.net

You can reach Richie Davis at
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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