Environmental Groups' Warning That Sea Levels Will Inundate National Landmarks Challenged

By Lauretta Brown | May 28, 2014 | 4:18 PM EDT


The Cape Hatteras National Lighthouse is one of two dozen landmarks threatened by rising sea levels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. (AP file photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Ellis Island, the Kennedy Space Flight Center and Mesa Verde National Park are just three of 30 historic sites in the U.S. that are “at risk as never before” of being inundated by rising sea levels from climate change within this century, members of The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) warned at a joint briefing on Capitol Hill last week.

But the groups’ predictions were challenged by Dr. Pat Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute and past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, who told CNSNews.com that it’s more likely that Yellowstone National Park will “blow sky high” due to underground geothermal activity.

“I’m concerned that the Union of Concerned Scientists is not really telling us the scientific truth,” Dr. Michaels said.

At the Washington briefing, the two environmental groups unveiled UCS’ new report, “National Landmarks at Risk,” which “highlights climate threats to the nation’s iconic landmarks and historic sites, and details steps being taken to protect these national treasures.” The report stated that the 30 national landmarks are threatened by “sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent large wildfires.”

Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) who also spoke at the briefing, brought up “marked changes” in New Mexico weather, particularly “precipitation patterns and temperature and even wind events that have driven a fire pattern that is very, very different.”  He claimed that this new weather pattern “has the potential and has already begun to wipe archeological sites literally off the map.”

Dr. Michaels addressed the damage that the recent wildfires in New Mexico have caused to the state's landmarks, saying, “It is a fact that the Pacific Southwest has been pretty droughty in recent years, but those landmarks were there in the 1500s, in the 1600s.

“Colorado river data or sediments buried in the Colorado River basin show us that the droughts in the Middle Ages made the current droughts look rather juvenile, rather immature,” by comparison, Michaels pointed out.

“We looked at that (historic data) in the broader context of the science of what might happen in the future to see what would be the projected changes and what we found is that many of the changes are consistent with what we’re already having at the site,” said Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist with UCS.

Citing the National Climate Assessment’s projected sea level rise of one to four feet during this century, she added, “It’s plausible that we might get six feet of rise over this century and so that’s something that, for example, three feet we could have that on the current rise of rate that we’re doing now with high emissions, could be around 2065 - which is just a few decades hence. Or it could take till the end of the century, which might be another 40 years on top of that. So it really depends on how much heat trapping emissions we release into the atmosphere.”

Dr. Ekwurzel claimed that “The ocean temperature is the major story of climate change that is often ignored since we mostly hear about surface air temperature trends.”

“Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0–700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971,” she quoted from the latest  IPCC report.

But Dr. Michaels challenged her assertion, pointing out that, “We are now in our seventeenth year without a significant surface temperature warming. The explanation for that, the myth that explains that, is, excuse me, the heat has disappeared into the deep ocean. Okay, that’s great, now tell me how it got down there because you can’t find the intervening step,” adding that the historic data proving that deep sea temperatures are increasing is “non-existent”.

“We have precious few measures of temperature in the deep ocean that has any historical significance. We weren’t really interested in the temperature, you know, two thousand feet, three thousand feet below the surface of the ocean until recently,” Dr. Michaels added.

CNSNews.com asked Dr. Ekwurzel about the 17-year “pause” in global warming that is exhibited by Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) data and how that might affect the report’s claims about the risk to national landmarks from sea level rise and drought.

She responded by citing the latest report by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which stated that it had “medium confidence” that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.”

“There’s medium confidence on that because there’s a lot of evidence that it was warmer during the Medieval Warm Period about a thousand years ago,” Dr. Michaels responded. “There is some evidence that is very shaky and very controversial that it was not. I would argue the balance of evidence says it was probably as warm then as it is now.”

If the UCS was so concerned about national landmarks, Michaels added, they should bring up the fact that it’s “quite inevitable that Yellowstone National Park is going to blow sky high... there’s so much geothermal activity underneath it. It’s on top of a really big volcano.

“Everyone knows that Mount Mazama blew up a long time ago and created the Yellowstone caldera. You think that hotspot’s going away?” he asked. “I could make the statement that the crown jewel of the National Park Service, the first national park, Yellowstone National Park, is probably going to be obliterated, no, is inevitably going to be obliterated in the future.”

“The national monuments are subject to weather," Michaels added sarcastically. “This is a real alarming story.”