Chesapeake is `in a race against time'

ON THE BAY

Advocacy: Rising sea levels could mean disastrous consequences, a fact that hasn't been lost on some.

October 29, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

This week I saw 50 years into the future of Chesapeake Bay: Bring boots.

For days, offshore winds, with a little boost from the approaching full moon, pushed tides from Long Island to Baltimore about 1.5 feet higher than predicted.

Around the lower Eastern Shore, it meant wading to take a walk and avoiding low-lying roads.

It also meant parking lots flooded, docks underwater, marshes submerged.

Some schools let out early so buses could avoid rising waters, and there were concerns about response times for fire trucks and ambulances due to the flooding.

The high water was no disaster, but not something you'd want to live with, either. At some point it struck me:

In a few more decades, days like these will be the norm.

The increase we experienced, 1.5 feet above normal, is half the rise in sea levels projected for the bay in the next century.

By 2100, everyday water levels twice as high as those of the last week will transform the nature of the bay's edge, and where we live along it.

And imagine a future Hurricane Isabel blowing in atop a sea level swollen by an additional yard.

The high water set the stage for an eye-opening presentation Tuesday at Salisbury University. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest hosted a screening of a film - We Are All Smith Islanders - at a forum on global warming.

A rapidly increasing sea level is the most apparent impact on the bay of our warming planet - a warming greatly exacerbated by human burning of fossil fuels.

The carbon dioxide released from coal, oil and natural gas remains in the atmosphere, trapping heat like a greenhouse.

As it warms, ocean water expands, driving up the sea level. Around the bay, the impact is even worse because the land is also sinking, still recovering from being bulged up by the pressure of glaciers to the north thousands of years ago.

Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, has become a leader in Congress on the need for the United States to join the rest of the world in reducing carbon dioxide.

"We're in a race against time," he said. "The planet is warming, and human energy needs are causing [climate] fluctuations in the last 150 years on a scale greater than anytime in the last 400,000 years."

He was joined by Mike Tidwell, a former journalist who founded the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (www. chesapeakeclimate.org).

It's a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding solutions to global warming at the state and bay-region level.

Climate Action is one of the best new groups on the bay environmental scene.

That's because energy use - its focus - cuts across every aspect of environmental health.

Reducing fossil fuel use means reducing smog, asthma, cancer, mercury poisoning and heart disease.

It means less polluting nitrogen fouling the bay. It means less traffic congestion and sprawl development as we turn to public transit and preserve the forests and farmlands whose plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Clean air and water, healthier humans, a greener landscape - we should be doing this even if global warming and carbon dioxide weren't concerns.

But they are huge concerns, and current U.S. energy policy is to burn more fossil fuels and subsidize their ever greater production.

Alternatives - wind energy, solar power, vehicles with high gas mileage, energy conservation, mass transit - get short shrift.

The movie, available for $10 from Climate Action, begins with Jesse Marsh, a Smith Island native, who recalls how the rising sea level has taken whole communities, like Holland Island, where his ancestors lived, and now threatens Smith.

Other interviews in the film, from farmers to health workers, bring home the impacts of "global" warming in our own neighborhoods and landscapes.

It reveals that floods and hurricanes are not the natural disasters that kill the most people. It's heat waves, which are getting worse as a result of climate change.

The Earth's average temperature has risen one degree Fahrenheit during the past century, but will warm another 3 to 10 degrees by 2100, scientists predict.

Doesn't sound alarming? During the last ice age, when glaciers stretched into Pennsylvania, temperatures only averaged 5 to 9 degrees cooler than they do now.

Even the relatively moderate sea level rise of a foot or so around the bay in the past century has had huge impacts. Half of the bay's 290,000 acres of tidal wetlands are turning into open water, and some 60,000 acres are nearly lost.

Gilchrest is exerting national leadership on the climate change issue now, and Tidwell is making the all-important connection to local impacts and solutions.

But it's an uphill fight. The same day as the Salisbury forum, which was attended by about 100 people, the Wall Street Journal carried a full-page color ad from ChevronTexaco Corp.: "We go to the ends of the earth to find cleaner energy."

The ad was about the energy giant's efforts to exploit more natural gas - with no mention of the fact that burning it pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, just like burning coal and oil.

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