States battle surging seas -- despite uncertainty among climate scientists

Large parts of Florida may be underwater in the next few decades, and New York thinks $20 billion might save the city from the coming floodwaters of climate change, but some scientists disagree about whether there’s even a problem.

A new report in the prestigious journal Nature Geosciences concludes that water levels are set to rise by as much as 7 feet in the next thousand years. With similar concerns in mind, some lawmakers say now is the time to act.

“Climate change and rising sea levels is a serious concern for all Americans, but especially those who live in low-lying areas,” New York City Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a statement to

“We must prepare for the inevitable serious damage future storms will cause to our great city and take meaningful action on climate change as well,” he added.

'I can't see how a sea level rise of less than 1 foot in a century makes any difference.'

— William Happer, who researched ocean physics for the U.S. Air Force

Nadler is one of 40 members of Congress who signed a letter urging President Obama to create a panel to oversee the effects climate change will have on their communities. Many of the members are from districts that would be most affected by rising sea levels.

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Other politicians share Nadler’s concerns. In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a $20 billion flood barrier system that would protect the city from future hurricanes and rising sea levels.

Florida communities are also considering multimillion-dollar proposals to modernize their flood prevention systems.

But some scientists point to historical sea level changes as evidence that there’s not much to fear.

“The sea level has been rising since about 1800, at the end of the 'little ice age'," a period of cooling that stretched for a few hundred years, explained William Happer, who researched ocean physics for the U.S. Air Force and who currently is a physics professor at Princeton University.

"Assuming that the high rate of rise continued for a century, there would be a rise of about 10 inches by the year 2113. This is much less than the difference between high and low tide for most localities,” he told

“I can't see how a sea level rise of less than 1 foot in a century makes any difference, and it certainly is no reason for busybody politicians to launch grand schemes in a variant of the old protection racket of organized crime,” Happer added.

But many scientists say sea levels are likely to rise faster in the future than they have in the past, due to increases in manmade global warming.

“There is no question that the time to prepare for sea level rise is now... We will definitely see 7 feet of sea level rise -- the only question is when,” Josh Willis, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told

“Our best estimates of sea level rise in the next 100 years are 3 to 4 feet, but we can't completely rule out 6 or 7 feet. Such a rise would devastate coastal communities that are unprepared,” Willis said.

Many scientists agree that the sea level rise will accelerate, and say they are uncertain only of the magnitude.

“Sea levels are widely expected to continue to rise and accelerate in the future due to climate change, but the magnitude of this rise is subject to large uncertainties,” Robert J. Nicholls, a professor and climate change researcher at the University of Southampton told

“In my view, a rise of up to [6.5 feet] is possible by 2100, but this is a ‘worst case’ rise -- I would expect the rise to be much lower.”

Some say using taxpayer dollars for flood prevention investments and reducing carbon emissions is a wise investment.

“Even [1 foot] of sea level rise increases the frequency of flooding significantly. This is the current trend at New York and it should not be considered insignificant,” Nicholls said.

“Pay a little now to save a lot later,” Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at SUNY Suffolk, noted.

But others say that, given our limited knowledge of climate patterns and relatively slow historical increase, we should not throw money at a problem that may not exist.

“Predicting a sea level rise of 7 feet over the next few thousand years would seem far too risky a prediction on which to spend tax dollars,” Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, former United States senator from New Mexico, and Apollo 17 astronaut, told

“Politicians should never fund long-term programs based on guesses and hype,” he added.

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