THE YEAR 2017 was just three weeks old when international climate scientists issued a bombshell warning about the looming danger to the world from persistent sea level rise triggered by climate change.
A new study published in the peer reviewed scientific journal, Science, in January said countries will be inundated by sea levels that might rise to at least six meters (20 feet) in the future. It said this disaster won’t happen in our lifetime, mind you, and might take anywhere from 200 year to more than 2,000 years for it to occur.
What’s disconcerting about this news is it isn’t just another warning sea levels are indeed rising, but confirms sea level rise is the inevitable future for our planet Earth. Nothing is going to stop it.
And the question now -- especially for the Philippines -- is what people should do to mitigate the awful economic, social and security problems sea level rise is bringing in its train.
What led scientists to the startling conclusion sea levels are set to top six meters in the future was a deep look at the state of the Earth 125,000 years ago during the Last Interglacial Period. This was a time that saw the Earth’s last “warm period” almost similar to the one we have today.
Over 125,000 years ago, sea levels were six meters to nine meters higher compared to today’s levels. This knowledge led scientists to surmise the worst is yet to come, and that sea level rise will continue in the future -- and will get far, far worse.
And what does this warning mean for the Philippines?
Nature’s twin faces
It’s ironic to note that Nature is many times at its most beautiful in the Philippines. But there’s a reverse side to this beauty.
In the Philippines, nature can sometimes be at her most ferocious. The Philippines is the singular country in the world most devastated by typhoons every year.
From 2011 to 2015, an average of 19 typhoons entered our territory. In 2014 and 2015, 15 typhoons entered the Philippine area of responsibility in each of these years.
In 2013, 25 typhoons entered the Philippines, making the year the most typhoon-prone this century. One of these typhoons was the Category 5 Super Typhoon Called Haiyan or Yolanda that took the lives of over 6,000 Filipinos, mostly in the Visayas.
Typhoons have been increasing in severity since the start of the 21st century. Five of the 10 deadliest typhoons occurred this century and took the lives of 12,500 Filipino. Eight of the 10 most destructive typhoons ever recorded also occurred this century, and inflicted some PhP6 billion in damage.
To this unenviable record of pain, we must now add the devastating effects of global warming. Clearly, the most dangerous impact of global warming on the Philippine archipelago is sea level rise and the loss of land that is the direct result of this phenomenon.
Sea level rise is accelerated by climate change. It is no longer a clear and present danger in the Philippines but a grim and lethal reality.
The danger from sea level rise
Among all countries in the world, the Philippines has experienced the highest average increase in sea level rise at 60 centimeters. This is an astounding number.
It’s than three times higher than the global average of 19 centimeters based on records dating back to 1901, said the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
A recent United Nations report identified the Philippines as the most at-risk from climate change among all countries in the world.
Climate experts said extreme sea level rise has increased the Philippines’ vulnerability to natural disasters such as those wrought by more powerful typhoons and severe weather. Sadly, the Philippines is heavily affected by rising sea levels in other parts the world. The accelerated melting of glaciers in Antarctica is compounding this problem.
Then there is soil erosion caused by deforestation. Erosion damages infrastructure, property and businesses, especially fisheries. But the damage soil erosion inflicts on farming is massive, and the loss of irreplaceable topsoil to the seas costs tens of billions of dollars each year.
Erosion increases siltation that increases the severity of floods while damaging corals, fish populations and mangrove forests. Sediment flow into rivers and oceans caused by erosion contributes to rising sea levels.
We all know the loss of trees through illegal logging causes widespread erosion throughout the world. This was once true in the Philippines but the banning of logging nationwide in 2013 has helped curb erosion. The ban has also helped protect the mangrove forests that mediate the risks from coastal hazards such as storm surges.
The price to be paid
And what of the human cost of the unnatural rise in sea levels? Some 14 million Filipinos living in the coastal or low-lying areas will have to relocate to safer ground by 2050, said a study by the Asian Development Bank in 2012.
The Philippines has identified over 170 coastal towns in 10 provinces that will be submerged if the sea level rises by one meter.
Pity the Philippines that will bear some of the worst effects of global warming despite being the least polluting country among all countries in Southeast Asia.
The easterly wave flow of the Pacific Ocean also has something to do with the severity of sea level rise in the Philippines. But it is anthropogenic global warming and the increase in greenhouse gases that are mostly to blame for this looming catastrophe.
A recent study by two American universities said sea levels in the Philippines will continue to rise unless people around the world stop altering the climate. These people in other parts of the world, notably the world’s largest polluters such as China and the United States, are also among the world’s richest countries.
The worst of the calamities being triggered by climate change are expected 35 years or so from now. But the fuse that will ignite this catastrophe has been lit, and we can see its initial effects in the Philippines.
Take the island of Mindoro, for instance. Mindoro was a heavily forested and sparkling green island in the 1980s. Nature ruled the island.
The deforestation of Mindoro’s lush forests, however, has destroyed 90% of the island’s forest cover. Today, the sea laps at coconut trees that now stand at the new shoreline. Houses have been built further inland to escape the encroaching sea.
Mindoro today is among the provinces most vulnerable to sea level rise.
Expert opinion says sea level rise is the inevitable result of an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions -- mostly man-made -- and the subsequent heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The greatest impacts of sea level rise in the Philippines are similar to those faced by other countries under threat from this phenomenon. The only difference is the degree of severity.
In the Philippines, sea level rise will displace thousands of Filipinos from the homes, in effect making them internal refugees that will need state support. Over three-quarters of the Philippines’ population live along the coastlines of its many island provinces, at least 10 of which are extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.
As the Philippines continues to battle intractable poverty, the displacement of thousands of Filipinos – many of them poor – will hinder efforts to lift the poor out of poverty.
Equally devastating will be the loss arable land to the sea. The greatest damage won’t be caused by the ocean eating up the land but by the increased salinity in groundwater tables caused by seawater encroachment.
This salinity will cause much of the water supply and soil to become too salty to grow crops and support animal species.
Then there are the billions of pesos that will be lost due to damage to agriculture, infrastructure, industries and coastal zones.
Then we will have to develop a Plan B should the world’s campaign fail to limit global warming by the end of the century to two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial level.
Scientists agree that two degrees Celsius is a threshold beyond which severe drought, rising seas and massive storms plus food and water security will become everyday challenges.
These mammoth problems will demand mammoth solutions.
Some experts believe the Philippines needs to focus on climate adaptation and prepare better for more severe climate change. One UN expert said the Philippines can better adapt to climate change by changing the way structures are built in coastal areas.
What the Philippines needs are more resilient infrastructure that can better resist extreme events such as very strong rains and typhoons. These are very expensive solutions, however.
The government is doing important things to spread the word about the perils faced by the Philippines from sea level rise. A few years ago, the Department of Environment and National Resources organized a climate change office that has developed programs to educate communities in areas most at risk from sea level rise.
There is a government program that teaches communities to adapt to rising sea levels by ensuring that public spaces such as community halls and schools are not built near the coast. More needs to be done at the national and local levels in the Philippines.
The national government must enlist the aid of the private sector in the fight against sea level rise. The fight against sea level rise is a matter of national survival. Everyone must be involved.