The fable of the boiling frog holds that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will instantly leap back out but if you put that frog in a pot of cold water and heat it gradually it will just remain there until it's cooked. Some people consider that a metaphor for the human race in the age of rapid climate change.
How abrupt and jarring does climate change have to become before it causes us to respond with demands for immediate action? If we don't react how long before it becomes our new normal, just another part of our world and our environment?
In Calgary we saw two "once a century" floods in just eight years, almost back to back. There's a similar pattern of recurrence in many parts of the United States and Europe. Our heated atmosphere contains, by some estimates, about 14% more water vapour than we had as recently as 1980. When you consider that water vapour is the most powerful greenhouse gas that's an awful lot. The warmer, moister atmosphere also provides powerful fuel for hurricanes and other storm events of increasing frequency, intensity and duration. That also changes precipitation patterns. Normally wet areas get wetter, dry areas become drier. Flood and drought with fluke variations in both areas.
In the main our authorities still prefer to respond to these impacts in the same way that made sense as recently as the 1980s - declare a disaster and send disaster relief followed by cheques to help reconstruction. Yet as natural disasters become more commonplace and recurrent it saps the government's ability to keep writing cheques. Eventually it has to become every man for himself.
In today's Guardian is a report that across coastal America, high tide flooding has doubled in the past 30 years. Doubled, and the situation is worsening. It's a combination of several factors including sea level rise, worsening severe storm events, and coastal infrastructure that was designed and built to meet far milder conditions. But they don't have to wait for Hurricane Sandy events any more. Now they get "Sunny Day" flooding from high tides alone.
...these events swamp streets and homes with water simply from the incoming tide, without the aid of a storm. Noaa said that in 2017 areas across the US north-east and Gulf of Mexico were worst hit, with Boston, Massachusetts, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, both experiencing 22 days of flooding, while Galveston, in Texas, was soaked on 18 different days.
The longer-term trend is even more certain, Noaa said, with melting glaciers, thermal expansion of sea water and altered ocean currents pushing the sea level steadily higher and causing further floods.
“Breaking of annual flood records is to be expected next year and for decades to come as sea levels rise, and likely at an accelerated rate,” the report states. “Though year-to-year and regional variability exists, the underlying trend is quite clear: due to sea level rise, the national average frequency of high tide flooding is double what it was 30 years ago.”
“There’s a clear upwards trend of this type of flooding,” said Andrea Dutton, a geologist at the University of Florida. “Extreme events like hurricanes may be the breaking point but this sort of frequent flooding is the taste of what is coming in the future on a permanent basis. We need to rethink our relationship with the coastline because it’s going to be retreating for the foreseeable future.”
Dutton said that south Florida, where weather forecasts in some places now come with tidal warnings, and fish are a regular sight on flooded roads, is particularly vulnerable. The low-lying region sits on porous limestone, which pushes up floodwater from underground, and many communities are unable to easily retreat because they back on to the Everglades wetlands.But that's where we can thank our lucky stars that we have governments to protect us. What's that? They won't?
“They used to get just one day a year of tidal flooding, now it’s two months of it in the fall,” she said. “Engineering can help delay things but ultimately the oceans will win. We are going to have to live with the water.”
Despite the risk posed to the US by sea level rise and flooding events, there is no national plan to deal with the issue, with much of the adaption work left to states and counties. The Trump administration has rescinded previous rules to build federally funded infrastructure with climate change in mind and has sought to reverse various measures aimed at taming global warming.
“We need to take this report as a warning to prepare ourselves, or we will just sit around [like the frog in the pot] and wait for disaster to happen,” Dutton said.
Canada's frog is dozing in that same pot. The east coast is particularly vulnerable. Ports are built down to the waterline, to the boats. The wharfs and quays and jetties weren't designed with sea level rise in mind. Neither were waterfront homes and buildings, roads and utilities. Replacing all that in a retreat from the sea is going to be bloody costly. Yet most international trade in goods is carried in the holds of ships. This photo gives an idea of what the port of Halifax can expect from 3 degrees Celsius of warming.
That's where creeping normality can turn dangerous when it lulls us into complacency, encouraging us not to act in time.