Rising seas could threaten Gulf Coast, scientific group says during stop in Tampa

TAMPA — By the year 2100, much of the Pinellas coastline and parts of Hillsborough will be inundated with water, an estimate that almost doubles researchers' original predictions about the rise in sea levels, scientists in global warming said Thursday.

Scientists with the Clean Air-Cool Planet initiative, which aims to find solutions to global warming, unveiled their findings at the Florida Aquarium. It was their first stop on a "Hip Boot Tour" discussing the global effects of the rapid decline of the Greenland ice sheet.

"In a place like Florida, you're going to be constantly shoveling out buckets of water," said Gordon Hamilton, an associate research professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute who studies polar glaciology. "Flooding will inundate structures and ecosystems."

Hamilton said he first realized the urgency of melting polar ice on a flight to the region in 2005. He had mapped the coordinates of a glacier a few months before his trip. The day of the helicopter flight, the glacier was no longer there.

"That was my 'gee whiz' moment," Hamilton said. "We were flying over open sea."

Melting ice and broken glaciers send water levels rising around the world. This year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded through its latest research that the rise of sea levels could be about 1 meter. However, Hamilton's study indicates that the number could be double that. In Florida, the levels would rise about 3 to 6 feet, or even more.

But some scientists said the numbers vary so widely above and below the panel's numbers that it is hard to say whose predictions are correct.

"People are measuring (the rate of polar ice melting) all the time, but no one knows for sure whether it's a long-term acceleration that will continue to increase or it is part of a gradual up-and-down kind of thing," said Abby Sallenger, an oceanographer with the U.S. Geological Survey's center for Coastal and Watershed Studies. "There has been a tremendous amount of uncertainty."

If Hamilton's predictions come true in low-lying Florida, ground water would be contaminated by saltwater, making it unusable.

Communities in Pinellas County that sit along the Gulf of Mexico would be saturated. Homes and businesses along Old Tampa Bay and MacDill Air Force Base also would be affected.

"The implications for the environment and society are pretty alarming," Hamilton said.

Brooks Yeager, executive vice president for policy for Clean Air-Cool Planet, also took the tour to the Sun Spree Resort in St. Petersburg, where scientists spoke at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program's Area Scientific Information Symposium.

While at the aquarium, Yeager pointed to several steps people can take to slow the warming. They include reducing the release of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon into the atmosphere and looking at the development of coastal infrastructure like cultivating mangroves that can slow the rise of the water.

Emily Rocheleau, the Hip Boot Tour organizer, donned a pair of hip boots to communicate the visual difference between previous scientists' estimates and Hamilton's findings.

She raised a hula hoop near her knees to represent the 17.3-inch rise in sea levels that scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have predicted for this century. She then raised the hoop to her waist and then her chest to represent the new ranges. The grimmest scenario: The hula hoop lingered above her head.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Rising seas could threaten Gulf Coast, scientific group says during stop in Tampa 10/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 12:54am]

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