People walk along Orne Harbour, Antarctica, on February 6. The melting of Antarctic ice is causing sea levels to rise 3mm a year, a process that will only speed up as the region records higher temperatures. Photo: Reuters
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

Coronavirus might be the world’s immediate challenge, but Antarctic heat record should worry us more

  • With the temperature at an Antarctic research base hitting 18.3 degrees this month and evidence of ice melting faster in the ‘doomsday glacier’, predictions of a 2-metre rise in sea levels seem more real. Governments, including Hong Kong’s, seem callously ill prepared
It seems I am ever the contrarian. While all eyes are pointed north towards Wuhan, the epicentre of a new coronavirus, and the possibility of a pandemic, my eyes are turned firmly south, towards the Antarctic and melting ice.

Here in this coldest and remotest of regions, there may be no threats to us in the coming weeks, nor might we recognise any threat for years, but here, over our lifetimes, the clock is ticking on one of the gravest threats to us all.

In Antarctica’s Esperanza base, close to the tip of Argentina and Chile, scientists weighing and measuring Gentoo and Adelie penguins have had to strip off their thermal work suits as the temperature has risen to 18.3 degrees Celsius – the highest temperature ever recorded in a settlement that in even the warmest of Antarctic summers rarely sees temperatures rise above 10 degrees.

Meanwhile, in West Antarctica, scientists plumbing the 74,000 sq mile Thwaites Glacier – about the size of Florida – found new evidence of ice melting faster than ever previously imagined. Not for nothing is the glacier called the “doomsday glacier”. Further east, iceberg A68, about five times the area of Hong Kong and made up of a trillion tonnes of ice, is after a couple of years of dithering at last moving out into the South Atlantic Ocean.

A lonely penguin appears in Antarctica during the southern hemisphere's summer season. Photo: AP

It seems hard to get alarmed when scientists say Antarctic ice melt is raising sea levels by 3mm a year, but drip by drip we should be afraid. As evidence accumulates of speeding ice melt, they are talking now of oceans that will be between 1 to 2 metres higher by the end of the century.

The first Chinese walks to South Pole to highlight climate crisis

Turn to the fascinating mapping work being done by Climate Central, and the specifics of this threat become stark. By 2050, land that is currently home to about 300 million people “will fall below the elevation of average annual flood”.

Cities in Asia are among those at greatest risk. Around Shanghai, an area from Lianyungang in the north to Hangzhou in the south (about 570km), and 250km inland embracing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou and Nanjing, is under threat. Around Hong Kong, an area west from Shenzhen and Dongguan to Jiangmen and up to Guangzhou could be submerged daily at high tide by 2050.

In northern Vietnam, flooding will extend 100km inland to Hanoi, while the entire area 200km south from Ho Chi Minh will be under water.

Climate Central predicts that 93 million people in China – 26 million around Shanghai – face displacement, along with 42 million in Bangladesh, 36 million in India, 31 million in Vietnam, 23 million in Indonesia and 12 million in Thailand.

The Asian Development Bank warns that the costs arising from rising sea levels will amount to US$864 billion in the 23 east Asian cities most vulnerable to flooding. It says losses due to flooding will rise from US$6 billion a year in 2005 to around US$52 billion a year by 2050.
These forecasts may be conservative, given that damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cost about US$250 billion – US$161 billion in the United States alone – and that hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, all in 2017, together caused damage amounting to US$265 billion.

Why 2017 hurricanes got really intense, quickly

In the absence of good local estimates, modellers have estimated that Hong Kong’s losses from Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018 were around US$18 billion, with even larger losses on the mainland.

But ask officials here in Hong Kong what is being done to protect our population and that of the Greater Bay Area, including critical infrastructure like Hong Kong International Airport, and answers are embarrassingly vague.

Perhaps they could compare notes with the Netherlands, which even Roman author Pliny the Elder described 2000 years ago as “a pitiful land flooded twice a day”. After tragedies over the centuries, the country has developed the “poldermodel” – a consensus-oriented decision-making process that includes various stakeholders in society – to protect the community with an efficiency and effectiveness that is the envy of the world.

“The Dutch … tend to be in awe of nations that are good at rescuing people from rooftops or flying in soldiers to clear wreckage,” Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times recently. “Instead, the Netherlands does prevention.”

Rising sea levels plunge Singapore into battle to stay above water

For decades the government has spent around 1 billion (US$1.09 billion) a year on what it calls “dry feet insurance”. The showpiece of this policy is the 450 million Maeslantkering barrier that protects Rotterdam at the mouth of the Rhine as it flows into the North Sea. As Kuper notes, “the ‘door’ needs to close just once in its lifetime to earn its money” because any flood that shuts Rotterdam could cause damage worth hundreds of billions.

In contrast to the Dutch focus prevention, Kuper observes that “the US devotes awesome energy to response – rebuilding after disasters”. However, the rebuilt structures are vulnerable to future storms. “The National Flood Insurance Programme has repeatedly bailed out more than 30,000 ‘severe repetitive loss properties’, each flooded on average five times,” Kuper says.

As more ice melts, as seasonal storms become more severe, and flood damage becomes more extensive, Asia’s vulnerable cities face a clear choice between “repair and rescue” expertise or the Dutch “poldermodel”.

But even here, the severity of the future challenge has Kuper worried. After examining how much the world might learn from the Dutch approach to flood protection, his conclusion was stark: “I began my research thinking that the Dutch could save the world, but finished by doubting whether they could even save the Netherlands.”

I hope he is wrong, but the absence of any serious official efforts to begin addressing the problems linked to inevitable rise in sea levels fills me with concern. If our oceans continue to rise at just 3mm a year, then we probably have time on our side to prepare. But whether we are in Shanghai or Tianjin, Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok – or even here in the Greater Bay Area – we probably have no time to lose.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Of time and high tides