The Truth About Sea Levels

Lately I’ve seen more “news” than usual about the dangerous sea level rises caused by rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Here are three seemingly scary stories from the New York Times: 1 2 3

Thanks in large part to our use of hydrocarbon (fossil) fuels, which release carbon dioxide when combusted, CO2 now constitutes, by popular estimates, .01% more of the atmosphere than it did in 1850. Does that constitute a large and growing threat of rising sea levels? Let’s look at the big picture using three revealing graphs you probably haven’t seen before.

First, here are tidal gauge measurements of sea levels around the world. Tidal gauge measurements are the best we have of sea level trends over the past 100+ years.

Local sea level trends
Source: Tide Gauge Data, Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (2014)

Notice that some rise dramatically, some fall dramatically, and some stay almost the same. Why?

Truth 1: The impact on sea levels of human-influenced global warming pales in comparison to local factors and to the massive natural sea level rises of the past.

Local factors influencing sea level include:

  • Post-glacial rebound: As ice has melted off certain land-masses since the last ice age, they move upward due to the decreased weight on top of them.
  • Sea floor movement: Since the planet’s crust is swimming on layers of molten stone, the coastal sea floor can move in a different direction or at a different pace than the land.
  • Development: On an island such as Manhattan development can put downward pressure on the land.

By comparison to these factors, any current global average trend is, well, glacial.
Global average trends can be alarming, however–not because of human beings but because of nature.
Even Wikipedia, whose entries on energy and environmental issues are notoriously dominated by the edits of climate catastrophists, acknowledges that sea level rise has dramatically slowed over thousands of years compared to dramatic rises 10-20 thousand years ago.

Source: Wikipedia

The takeaway: Our number one focus with sea levels should be building the infrastructure necessary to cope with whatever sea level changes occur–because local factors will always matter, and because we can never be sure what nature will throw at us.
Which brings us to the third graph–a graph of flood related deaths as CO2 in the atmosphere has increased. Note that we document far more flood-related deaths than we did when inferior reporting was available, so this graph almost certainly under-reports the deaths of the past.

Flood related deaths
Sources: Boden, Marland, Andres (2010); EM-DAT International Disaster Database; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data , April 2014

Notice that the rapid rise in CO2 did not lead to any increase in deaths. Why?

Truth 2: The unmatched scale of cheap, plentiful, reliable energy from hydrocarbons has enabled us to build and maintain a durable civilization that is increasingly safe from inherently unstable and dangerous sea levels.

We are so good at dealing with sea levels that many people, including people in 26% of the Netherlands, safely live below sea level.

If we want our mastery of the sea to continue, and we want to help others achieve the same, we need more hydrocarbons, not less.

PS Then why all the hysteria about sea levels? Bad philosophy leads to bad thinking. Here are three principles of good thinking that the sea level doomsayers violate.

Principle 1: Always distinguish between what is demonstrated and what is speculated.

By treating speculation based on invalidated climate prediction models as truth, instead of looking at the actual, demonstrated evidence, “news” stories are actually fiction.

Principle 2: Always look at the big picture for human well-being, carefully looking at both positives and negatives.

Our thought leaders only think to look at potential negative impacts of fossil fuel use on sea level safety and thus they miss the blatant positives.

Principle 3: Recognize the truth that nature is unstable and dangerous.

If you do this, you’ll be aware that sea levels are neither inherently stable nor safe.
But our thought leaders treat nature as stable and perfect and thus are inclined to blame any change or problem on human beings. And their “solutions” always involve halting our mastery of our environment rather than furthering it.

Thus, if the world wants to be safe from the sea, it needs more fossil fuels, more development, and more freedom.

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