Climate-Fueled Sea Level Rise Already Impacting America, Scientists Tell Congress

Flickr’s Tina Neale
From threatened power plants to overflowing sewers, scientists testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today say sea level rise fueled by global warming is already costing Americans money and threatening our health.

The hearing, Impacts of Rising Sea Levels on Domestic Infrastructures, was one of the only hearings on climate change that Congress has held this year. In that sense, it’s an important chance to talk about global warming, America’s biggest threat that Congress refuses to address. As National Wildlife Federation Climate Scientist Dr. Amanda Staudt blogged in advance of the hearing, “The climate-related threats to our nation’s energy systems compound the vulnerability associated with our aging & crumbling energy infrastructure, which is already causing environmental damage.” However, the committee made clear that this “is an oversight hearing, not intended to lead to legislation.”

I headed down to Dirksen Senate Office Building this morning to watch the hearing and kept a running diary …

9:27am – The hearing is set to begin at 9:30am. The committee includes some of Congress’ biggest champions of climate action (Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Maria Cantwell) and some of its staunchest polluter allies (Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. John Barrasso) so we could see some fireworks. The witness panel:

  • Dr. Waleed Abdalati, NASA Chief Scientist
  • Dr. Ben Strauss, COO & Director, Program on Sea Level Rise, Climate Central, Princeton, NJ
  • Dr. Anthony Janetos, Director, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute
  • Mr. Adam Freed, Deputy Director, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning & Sustainability, New York, NY
  • Dr. Leonard Berry, Director, Florida Center for Environmental Studies, Florida Atlantic University

9:38am – Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) gavels the hearing open. Says “several feet of sea level rise are possible” due to global warming but that’s not quite accurate – that much sea level rise is virtually guaranteed in the next 88 years, and it’s possible that we could be talking about 20 feet or more after 2100.

9:49am – NASA’s Dr. Waleed Abdalati begins testifying. Says 1/3 of Americans live in counties that immediately border the ocean. Global warming-fueled sea level rise models range from a low of 9 inches to a high of 6.5 feet. Says values on the low end are less likely. Values on the high end are based on a high-emissions trajectory … which we’re currently on.

9:54am – Dr. Ben Strauss begins testifying, you can read his written testimony at Says rising seas “raise the launch pad for coastal storm surges.” Compares it to “raising the floor of a basketball court – you’d see a lot more dunks.” turn Miami-Dade Florida as a “collection of islands.” Points out that in places like coastal Louisiana, sinking land will increase the effects of sea level rise. More than triples the odds of “once in a century” floods within the next two decades.

Is your community at risk? Enter your ZIP code at Climate Central’s website,

10:06am – “Not only are the skies falling, but the seas are rising,” says Dr. Leonard Berry. Points out that Florida is mostly porous limestone, meaning rising salt water threatens Florida’s drinking water supply. All witnesses have pointed out that this is not a future problem we can leave for our children to deal with – Dr. Berry says Florida is already dealing with sewage & drainage problems due to the 8 inches of sea level rise we’ve already seen, posing a major health risk. Check out this Union of Concerned Scientists report, Climate Change and Your Health: The Hidden Health Risks of Flooding in a Warming World.

10:11am – Adam Freed tells the committee that 10 of 17 power plants located within New York City are in the 1-in-100 year flood zone. It’s also a major threat to NYC’s transportation system.

10:16am – Senators who’ve attended the hearing so far: On the Democratic side, Jeff Bingaman, Ron Wyden, Maria Cantell, Bernie Sanders & Al Franken. On the Republican side: Only Lisa Murkowski, who’s also the only Republican on the committee from an ocean-bordered state.

10:24am – Witnesses have repeatedly issued pleas for better monitoring of sea level rise & the places most at risk. However, the GOP-controlled House has repeatedly tried to direct federal agencies to ignore climate change altogether. “It is bad enough that some members of Congress are favoring the short-term profit of oil & coal companies over confronting climate change and safeguarding natural resources for future generations,” NWF’s John Kostyack wrote last year. “But it is really overreaching to then try to put a blindfold on the folks who are in the position to show us the damage that their bad policies are causing and to minimize some of that damage.”

10:33am – Sen. Murkowski points out that Louisiana’s Route 1, the only road to critical ports along the Mississippi River Delta, needs to be lifted to survive sea level rise & right now local, state & federal authorities are bickering over how to pay for it. However, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who’s often stood with the oil & gas industry against climate action, isn’t at this hearing.

10:38am – Sen. Franken drops two wildlife references! Says it’s ironic that so many Republicans skipped the hearing since climate change is “the elephant in the room,” then says we have our “heads in the sand” like an ostrich. (However, even Dirty the Global Warming Denier Sock Puppet knows ostriches do not actually put their heads in sand.)

10:42am – “There are very few elements of our lives that will not be impacted by climate change,” says NYC’s Adam Freed. Points out that in the face of Congressional inaction, “It’s often left to state and local governments to deal with the impacts that are already occuring.”

10:46am – Sen. Murkowski leaves, meaning there are now no Republicans in the committee room for this hearing. Not much better a showing from the media – only six people at the press tables.

10:49am – Scary scenario laid out by Dr. Janetos: The Pacific Northwest gets a massive earthquake every 300-500 years. These earthquakes not only generate tsunamis, then tend to lower the land by several feet. Global warming-fueled sea level rise is raising the launching pad for those tsunamis.

Oh, and the last major quake was around 1700.

10:57am – “We are in danger of losing 30-40% of our coastal wetlands due to sea level rise.” Adam Freed points out that when you have densely-populated coastal areas, you often can’t just move the wetlands back. That means not just lost critical habitat for animals, fish & birds, but a lost buffer against storm surges.

11:06am – The poor attendance at this hearing really illustrates the climate disconnect inside the Beltway. While the public understands more than ever how global warming is impacting the United States, members of Congress are paying little notice – and the national media has virtually tuned out altogether.

11:11am – Sen. Franken points out that between climate change and green jobs, we need clean energy more than ever. However, Congress has refused to extend small clean energy tax credits while protecting billions in subsidies for dirty energy.

11:15am – Dr. Ben Strauss says the low end of temperature increase scenarios right now is 4 degrees Fahrenheit within the next 90 years. The last time temperatures were that high, sea levels were 20 feet higher than they are now.

11:18am – Sen. Bingaman gavels the hearing to a close. Note that the committee will hold another hearing next week, Weather-Related Electrical Outages.

To keep up with the latest climate news, you can read NWF’s Wildlife Promise or follow NWF, Dr. Amanda Staudt and Miles Grant on Twitter.