Detroit meteorologist: 'How I witnessed a direct effect of global warming'

By Paul Gross - Meteorologist

(NASA)

I had the good fortune to spend Thanksgiving week in Sarasota with a huge gathering of family and friends. It was a great week, but one thing -- aside from my brother-in-law Robert’s lamb chops -- really affected me. Take a look at these photos just up the beach from our hotel.

Robert and I initially saw this from a distance from his room’s balcony, so we decided to take a walk down there with our sons to see what was going on.

I had a conversation with the foreman, who told me that it was a beach restoration project for that particular few miles of beach. Basically, what the crew was doing was dredging a channel farther up the beach and pumping the sand it was removing there to the waterline farther down the beach. The sand would then be pushed and smoothed by the bulldozer.

The goal was to widen the beach, which had been severely eroded by storm-enhanced waves, and they were doing it from right to left in the photo. In fact, if you look at the wider-view photo, notice how much farther the beach goes out behind the bulldozer than where the mixture of water and sand is being pumped out.

By the way, it will astound you just as much as it did me that the pipe is 9,000 feet long. That’s right. They are pumping that stuff nearly 2 miles and they’ll eventually add more pipe and another pump as they work their way up the beach. 

I asked the foreman how long ago the crew had last done this at this location, and he said it was only four years ago! That’s right. This massive project had to be done again just four years after the last time. While I cannot remember his exact words, the foreman told me that this severe beach erosion is definitely much more common than it used to be. I was looking at a direct physical effect of climate change.

It is documented scientific fact that sea levels are rising. About two-thirds of this is from land ice in polar regions melting, but the rest is from what’s called thermal expansion: water is a very interesting substance in that its volume expands as it warms. So just the mere fact that our oceans are warming rapidly accounts for some of the sea level rise and, as you can see on this graph, those levels are rising at a higher rate now than at any time in the past 2,000 years.

Higher sea levels mean that storms with strong wind blowing toward shore push crashing waves farther onto the beach than they used to, and that increases beach erosion. I asked the foreman how much the project cost, and he said that widening just this beach was a $4 million project. He didn’t know who paid -- local hotels, the city, the county or the state -- but somebody has to pay for it and, in the end, those costs trickle down to the public. And this is just one beach restoration project in Florida, a peninsular state with a lot of coastline.

Now, we all know that tourism is very important to the economy of Florida, as well as to that of other locations on the Gulf and East Coasts, so beach restoration certainly is a high priority there. In fact, the foreman told me that the crew is working day and night, seven days a week. That shows you how urgent they consider these projects. But as sea levels continue to rise, beaches will be damaged more frequently and more severely, and the cost to maintain those special beaches will rise, as well.

I wanted to write about this to show you a direct, physical consequence of our warming climate. Global warming is not just some theory with guesses about what might happen. The science is concise and clear, and most of the world’s climate scientists agree that our climate is warming at an unprecedented rate, that the proximate cause of this is human activity and that we are already seeing direct effects, with many more to come.

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