You’ve heard it before: ocean levels are rising. It’s easy to shrug it off and think, “That’s somebody else’s problem; it doesn’t affect me.” But that’s where you’re wrong. We’re all at risk, especially those of us living in Asia – Singapore included.
Imagine walking along East Coast Park only to discover that the beach is no more. It’s totally gone and in its place is nothing but seawater. Sound crazy? It’s not. Global sea levels are now rising far faster than they did just a hundred years ago – a blink of an eye as far the age of the Earth goes. At this rate, the ocean could be a full 1.3 metres higher than today by 2100.
It doesn’t sound like much, though, does it? 1.3 metres. Yet here’s what that amount of extra water could mean in terms of probable events unfolding over the next 80 years:
• As many as 216 million people displaced.
• Seawater moving inland, contaminating aquifers and agricultural soil.
• Fish, bird and plants losing their habitats.
• Floods on a scale that once occurred every 500 years averaging every five years instead.
• Bigger storms with more powerful storm surges.
• Low-lying islands completely submerged.
• Weather patterns becoming more unpredictable.
• Increased shortages of food and water.
It reads like something out of The Book of Revelations. And there’s more. Lots more.
Professor BENJAMIN HORTON (pictured below right) is the Chair of the Asian School of Environment, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, and Principal Investigator of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. It’s a big job studying a big problem.
“My research concerns sea-level and environmental change. I aim to understand the mechanisms that have determined sea-level changes in the past, and how they will shape such changes in the future. Fundamental to this aim is bridging the gap between short-term instrumental records and long-term geological reconstructions and model predictions.” Benjamin and his team have shown that the rate of sea-level rise is greater now than at any time in the past 2,500 years. What’s more, they’ve found a consistent link between changes in the average global surface temperature and sea level over the same period.
All to say, in the past when the planet heated up, the sea levels have risen. And it’s not because the Earth is supposed to get hotter. Climate isn’t a pendulum; yes, Earth has had periods of ice and heat before, but this is different.
“The Earth doesn’t warm up because it feels like it,” says Horton. “It warms up because something forces it to warm. Scientists keep track of natural forcings, but the observed warming of the planet over the second half of the 20th century can only be explained by increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.” And that, folks, is on us. We humans are to blame.
How bad is it?
Rising seas are posing a threat in the Maldives, where more than 90 inhabited islands are experiencing annual flooding. In the Pacific, five of the Solomon Islands have disappeared already, swallowed up by the ocean. Closer to home, Cua Dai Beach near the magical Vietnamese town of Hoi An reportedly has several resorts on the brink of collapse; and two newly-built resorts never opened because of erosion.
Things will likely get worse. Satellite-based measurements of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets indicate they have respectively lost about 286 and 127 billion tons of ice each year over the 2002- to-2016 period.
If all the ice in Greenland melted, it would raise sea levels by seven metres. Antarctica has enough water to raise sea levels 65 metres. That’s about a third of the way up the Singapore Flyer! Yet even if just a small portion of Antarctic melted it would cause a devastating impact.
NASA’s satellites show that a hole wider than the island of Manhattan is eating away at one of Antarctica’s fastest-melting glaciers. Scientists estimate the enormous cavity – 300 metres high and 9.7km long – previously contained about 12 billion metric tonnes of ice, all of which has disappeared within the past three years. And it might start to melt faster and faster as it becomes more unstable.
But Singapore is safe, right?
No, Singapore is not safe – and not just because we’re a low-lying nation. Turns out, the ice caps exert a gravitational pull on water, which means that all the water on the planet is drawn towards the poles. As the ice melts, however, the force of this pull to the poles weakens. This means more water is drawn to the equator instead. So, when ice caps melt, a place such as Singapore, which sits almost on the equator, will actually get much more than its regular share of water.
Besides Singapore, many countries in Asia are at serious risk: China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan are particularly vulnerable. Bangladesh is in the most precarious position of all. If, as we forecast, the ocean rises 1.3 metres by 2100, it will affect 16 percent of the Bangladesh land area and 15 percent of its population – that’s 22,000 square kilometres and 25 million people!
What can we do?
Singapore has already taken action to reduce carbon emissions, introducing a wide variety of efforts and a Climate Action Plan. However, the rest of Asia has lagged behind in changing attitudes about environmental issues. China and India have finally begun to embrace renewable energy and increase efforts to clean up pollution. Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar are now all considering major environmental policy changes.
That’s good news, because solutions are particularly urgent for Southeast Asia. Yet, while policymakers are aware of the issues, there is no academic institution with ASEAN positioned to provide broad-based guidance on environmental policies. The Asian School of Environment at NTU hopes to address this.
Benjamin says that, while the situation isn’t hopeless, the future of the planet is up to us. “I do not believe that this planet is condemned to extreme climate becoming mainstream. If we act boldly and swiftly, if we set aside our political interests in favour of the air that our young people will breathe, and the food they will eat, and the water they will drink; if we think about them and their hopes and dreams, then we will act, and it won’t be too late. We can leave behind a world that is worthy of our children, where there’s reduced conflict and greater cooperation – a world marked not by human suffering, but by human progress.
10 things you can do right now
You may feel powerless, but if every one of us makes small changes, we can help save the planet! Try these actions for starters:
- Change to CFL lightbulbs
- Green your commute
- Turn off unused outlets
- Hang clothes to dry
- Eat meat-free meals
- Use less hot water
- Plant a tree
- Turn up air-con temperatures and have units cleaned
- Use kitchen cloths instead of paper towels
- Say no to single-use plastic
Did You Know?
There are currently more than 10 million people living on land that is at risk from sea levels rising across 12 nations in East Asia and the Pacific:
• North Korea
• Papua New Guinea
• South Korea
See more in our Environment section: