If you’ve ever flown between the United States and Europe, you may have noticed a giant white area showing up in the North Atlantic on the onboard flight-tracking maps.
Most people pay little attention to this white monolith. However, we should, since it will largely determine South Florida’s future.
Greenland is an oddity. It’s the world’s largest island, but, with just 56,000 inhabitants, it’s the least densely populated country. It’s huge, roughly the same size as the Eastern United States, from Maine to Florida, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.
Here’s why Florida needs to pay attention to Greenland. Eighty percent of the island is covered by a massive ice sheet, up to two miles thick. It’s safe to say that Greenland is Ground Zero for global sea-level rise as its giant ice sheet is now melting faster and faster.
If the ice sheet and glaciers on Greenland fully melt, global sea level would be 24 feet higher. To be clear, a full meltdown would take many centuries. But even melting by 10 percent would cause a few feet of higher sea level, which would be catastrophic for all low-lying coastal areas around the world.
Not only is South Florida at risk, but from San Francisco to Shanghai and from Copenhagen to Calcutta, there is worldwide vulnerability. As sea level rises, all coastlines move inland, even through marshlands like the Everglades and up tidal rivers like the Potomac.
(The International Sea Level Institute is organizing a fact-finding trip, Sept. 8-15 for people who want to see what is happening in Greenland firsthand. Go to greenland2019.johnenglander.net
It’s difficult for most of us to fathom sea level being much higher because for about 6,000 years, polar ice caps and sea level have changed little. Yet geologic history makes clear that sea level and coastlines change greatly, by hundreds of feet, following the natural cycles we know of as the ice ages.
Today, as the burning of fossil fuels warms the planet far faster than the natural pattern, ice melting is accelerating. The extra heat now stored in the ocean means that sea level can no longer be stopped this century. We have passed a tipping point.
That translates into more flooding in most coastal communities. So far, sea-level rise is just a fraction of an inch a year, but like a drip filling a bucket, the effect is cumulative. It’s now increasing exponentially. By mid-century, global average sea level could be one to two feet higher; by the end of the century, the extreme scenarios project as much as eight feet higher.
We can never abandon the shoreline. We need to be near the sea for shipping, commercial fishing and recreation. The sea also has a magical appeal to us. We cannot give up the coastal zone.
If we deny that the sea will rise, we will not be ready for the new coastline as waters rise to heights unknown by modern human beings. We can bury our heads in the sand, or we can begin to plan and adapt. We can design viable coastal communities for the future. There is no time to delay. We need to be bold.
The recent commemoration of the bold plan to put a man on the moon can serve as inspiration for what we can accomplish with the right vision, the right resources and leadership. Responding to the challenge of the rising sea and shifting shorelines will likely be even more of a challenge than putting a man on the moon.
We must rise with the tide — and keep a close eye on Greenland.
John Englander is president of the International Sea Level Institute, a nonprofit think tank and policy center.
He is an oceanographer and author of “High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.”
“The Invading Sea” is a collaboration of four South Florida media organizations: the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and WLRN Public Media.