@NPR Bungles Sea Level Rise Story

[This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the wattsupwiththat.com blog and was authored by CASF member, Bob Endlich.  We have added  it to the May 2017 Archive directory.]

Guest Blogger / May 11, 2017

Supposed threats to coastal military installations ignore science

By Bob Endlich

“Data from CO2 measuring stations and from the Sewell’s Point and all other tide gages may clearly refute these assertions, but NPR and its colleagues will not change their minds.”

“The Sewell’s Point tide gage shows that the rate of sea level rise has not changed since the gage was installed in 1927, and is unchanged from our use of fossil fuels. It’s time to base our policies on sound science, instead of manmade global warming fiction and scare stories.”

National Public Radio’s March 31 “Morning Edition” program carried a “news” story claiming that rising seas threaten a number of U.S. coastal military bases. The commentary was so laden with factual errors that listeners might have thought it was an early April fool’s joke. Unfortunately, it was not.

NPR remains so wedded to its belief that humans and carbon dioxide emissions are causing a fossil fuels–driven global warming catastrophe that its reporting has been compromised, and it is unable to think critically or report honestly without resorting to activist claims and fake news events.

Real journalism would have at least included passing references to alternative views and sources. But they were absent in this story, which in truth is a splendid example of ignorance or deception—reader’s choice.

Host David Greene introduced the sea level segment, noting that President Trump is taking steps to reverse Obama-era policies that called [manmade CO2-driven] climate change a national security threat. Reporter Jay Price then expanded on the national security theme, claiming the Sewell’s Point tide gage (or gauge) at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval Station shows that seas are rising there at the highest rates on the East Coast.

His errors began right from the outset. Sea level rise measured at Sewell’s Point is 4.59 millimeters (0.18 inches) per year. That’s less than recorded by neighboring Virginia tide gages: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel gage measured an average sea level rise of 5.93 mm annually; up the Delmarva Peninsula, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Wachapreague gage records show average seal level rise of 5.37 mm/year.

Tide Gages Only Part of the Story

In principle, a tide gage is like the float in a toilet tank. As water flows in, the gage shows a rise; as water flows out, it records a fall. However, tide gages are unable to determine whether changing water levels over time are due to changing sea levels, or whether the land on which it sits is rising or falling. That needs to be determined by another measure. Using GPS data from many years is a good method to determine the long term vertical motion of the ground near the tide gage.

Tide gage data are readily available at NOAA’s “Tides and Currents” web site. But Dave Burton’s Sea Level Info website has added carbon dioxide concentrations to the tide gage height, correlating the two topics. His site shows clearly and directly that CO2 concentrations have had no effect on rates of sea level rise. The Sewell’s Point sea level and CO2 plot is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Sea Level Rise at Sewell’s Point from www.sealevel.info/MSL

The rate of sea level has fluctuated several times over multi-decadal periods, but there is no human-caused CO2-fueled global warming signal in the data. Indeed, the rate of rise has not changed since 1927. In other words, there is no acceleration in sea level rise.

However, the Greene and Price’s reporting make it clear that, as they and NPR see it, sea level rise is definitely human-caused, the result of our using fossil fuels. In essence, this has morphed into a looming dual disaster: a national security threat and a dangerous manmade climate change threat. Their viewpoint is clearly political, unsupported by objective scientific data.

Figure 2 presents the best available estimate of global carbon dioxide emissions from 1900 to 2014. As it demonstrates, when the Sewell’s Point tide gage was installed in 1927, the global rate of CO2 emissions was about 1 GT/year. The most recent available estimate of CO2 emissions (2014) was about 10 GT/year. Comparing this CO2 data with the Sewell’s Point tide gage record in Figure 1 makes it clear that the rate of sea level rise at Sewell’s Point is unchanged over this nine-decade period.

Figure 2 Carbon dioxide emssions over time
Figure 2. Carbon dioxide emissions over time. (From notrickszone.com)

In summary, there is no human-caused CO2-fueled global warming signature in the tide gage record at Sewell’s Point – or anywhere else in the tide gage records, including the Battery in New York City and in San Francisco, where tide gage records go back to the time of the U.S. Civil War.

NPR’s Unreliable “Experts”

But this does not prevent NPR from quoting Retired Rear Admiral David Titley, then of the climate-obsessed Obama Administration and now of Penn State University, who declared that the sea level rise at Norfolk is definitely a result of human-caused climate change. (As many before me have pointed out, the U.S. military is and has always been under the direction and control of a civilian president.)

Nor do scientific facts prevent NPR from using this recent story from the always alarmist Union of Concerned Scientists and  this flawed  methodology  from another “global warming is manmade” group,  claiming that human-caused global warming has raised sea level “about eight inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating.” Data from CO2 measuring stations and from the Sewell’s Point and all other tide gages may clearly refute these assertions, but NPR and its colleagues will not change their minds.

Sea Level Rise and Land Subsidence

It is easy to see why this report and this reporting are in error. The majority by far of the apparent sea level rise in the Norfolk-Hampton-Newport News area is caused by two important non-climate-related forces: subsidence associated with an ancient subterranean impact crater, and the compaction of former wetlands filled in for development.

The center of the huge Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater is near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, and its proximity to Sewell’s Point is graphically shown here. The crater’s structure below the Hampton Roads region is causing most of the present-day subsidence of the terrain in this area.

Examining a satellite-based map of the Norfolk area reveals nearly straight shorelines, right angled corners, piers and other indications that show the terrain has been modified by dredging and filling of former wetlands to suit the needs of developers. When marshes are dredged and filled, the once muddy, wet fill continues to compact for decades, resulting in slow terrain subsidence, just as this article from The Economist reports: “In America, groundwater extraction without commensurate recharge [of water in the subsurface formations] is responsible for 80% of subsidence.”

In short, no matter how much NPR’s reporter and sources claim sea level rise is human-caused and CO2-fueled, the tide gage data show no correlation between rates of sea-level rise and human production of carbon dioxide. Clearly, the gradual inundation of these coastal areas and the apparent rise of sea level shown on tide gages at Sewell’s Point, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and Wachapreague are actually due primarily to the effects of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater and filled-in wetlands that are still losing water content and compacting.

A secondary cause, as noted by Paul Driessen and Roger Bezdek’s recent article, “Sea Level Rise—or Land Subsidence,” is land subsidence due to the pumping of vast amounts of groundwater for urban and agricultural purposes.

And yet, the 31 March NPR story does not even mention terrain subsidence. To NPR it is all about “climate change” and the notion that – if only human use of fossil fuels could be reduced or ended – the gradual rise of oceans off Hampton Roads could be stopped, and national security interests would be protected. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If WUNC reporter Jay Price or the program editors at NPR were the least bit curious, they would have investigated the sea level tide gages operated by NOAA for the entire country. They are displayed on NOAA’s “Tides and Currents” web page, which also features the map in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Map of the United States and Canada
Figure 3. Map of United States and Canada showing sea level trends. Arrows represent the direction and magnitude of change.  (Source: tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov)

Up or down arrows on the map shows whether seas are rising or falling in a particular area, with the rate of sea level rise or fall indicated by the color of the arrow. Many areas of temperate and tropical seas feature green “up” arrows, depicting gentle rates of sea level rise. However, in Scandinavia and many areas of Canada and Alaska, the seas are falling.  How could that be?

Isostatic rise and continental drift

In first year earth science courses, students learn that during the coldest years of the last ice age – the Wisconsin Ice Age, as it is known in North America, some 23,000 years ago – thick glaciers, up to one or even two miles deep, covered much of North America and Europe. They covered Canada and extended as far south as below the Great Lakes states, Manhattan and Long Island in New York, smothering the lands under incalculable billions of tons of ice that compressed those parts of the continents.

In areas where the glaciers have melted away, “isostatic rebound” continues to take place: with the immense weight of glacial ice from the last ice age removed, the land surface is actually rising, rebounding from the compaction caused by all that ice, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Image from aircraft: Successive shorelines show isostatic rebound.

In fact, intrepid investigators poking around Alaska on NOAA’s Tides and Currents map might even find that at Skagway, Alaska the Tide Gage shows sea levels falling rapidly (by geologic standards, anyway) at 17.63 mm (0.7 inches) per year!

Returning to the Continental USA map in Figure 3, green and yellow arrows along the East Coast indicate slight and moderate rates of sea level rise, with the Middle Atlantic States having somewhat higher rates of sea level rise. Along the Gulf Coast are red arrows; tide gages three show high rates of “sea level rise” in Louisiana.

But again, is it rising sea levels, or something else? Such as coastal erosion or less silt being deposited in the Mississippi Delta, thanks to soil conservation measures taken in America’s heartland, to prevent soil erosion. More about that in a moment.

Again, returning to our first-year earth science course, we’d learn that over the past 50 years a new specialty has emerged: Plate Tectonics (aka, continental drift). During that time, scientists demolished the previous “consensus view” – that continents were fixed in place on Earth and did not (could not possibly) move. We now know that the continents rest on “plates” that move and collide with other plates and their continents, and that tectonic forces cause regional areas of uplift and subsidence.

Using the tide gage map display as a guide, readers may well discern another possible explanation. There is a good chance that the variable rates of sea level rise and fall might be caused by the nature of the land at the shore itself. The new science of plate tectonics suggests that these variable rates of “sea level rise” – or land subsidence – may be due to different tectonic influences on different shores.

To recap, tide gages tell us the history of water movements recorded by the height of the gage float. However, the gages have no knowledge, and no way of knowing, whether the piers on which they sit are rising, as in the case of Skagway – or falling, as in the case of coastal Louisiana.

Preventing Soil Erosion Has Unexpected Consequences

It is doubtful that the NPR reporters took the time to learn about the December 1897 edition of National Geographic magazine. In it, E.L. Corthell reported that, ever since the Mississippi River was channelized, the yearly flooding of the Mississippi Delta had ceased. Without the fresh annual addition of silt to the surface, the entire delta continued to subside, with the result that Gulf of Mexico waters were encroaching up the delta, and farmers and other homesteaders were abandoning their lands.

And there was this: the subsidence of the entire Mississippi Delta area accounts for the tide gages showing large rates of sea level rise in coastal Louisiana.

One wonders if any reporters have studied Egyptian history – and if any of them learned and remembered the story of the annual Nile flood that once brought fresh nutrients to ancient fields, in the centuries and millennia before the Aswan Dam was built.

Things are never quite as simple or straightforward as they might seem, or we might like.

From Long Island and the Jersey Shore to South Texas, the entire coastal plain of the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts consists of unconsolidated sediments. When municipalities and industrial sites pump ground water for use by citizens, governments, and industry, the water is removed from the interstitial spaces in the sediments. The formations for the most part are not solid rock, but consist of sands, clays, silts, gravels and mixtures of these materials. When groundwater is pumped out, an important part of the soil mass is removed – and the land subsides.

The use of long-term GPS data can discern the difference between land subsidence and sea level rise. We just need to examine all the data, before jumping to conclusions.

The Chesapeake Bay Meteor

Close to Norfolk Navy Station and the Sewell’s Point tide gage, some 35.5 million years ago, a large bolide, or meteor, struck – evaporating sediments in the area and creating a huge crater in the crystalline basement rock below them. It was a cataclysm for plants and wildlife for miles around!

The crater center is close to the present southern extent of the Delmarva Peninsula, Figure 5. This Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater has affected geologic and geographic development of the lower Chesapeake Bay in the millions of years ever since.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Map of Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater, showing rim boundaries of the crater. The Sewell’s Point tide gage is where the outer rim black line crosses from Norfolk into the James River.  (from upload.wikimedia.org)

During that time, sediments once again collected in the Virginia Coastal Plain, where the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James Rivers converge into lower Chesapeake Bay. At the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 20,000 years ago, sea levels were some 400 feet lower than they are today – and the Susquehanna River flowed 80 miles east, to Norfolk Canyon in the continental shelf, as it emptied into the Atlantic.

The Susquehanna and its tributaries became drowned river valleys, and in August 1682 the British established Norfolk as a port town. Today, the Norfolk, Virginia, area is home to perhaps the largest naval facilities in the world. But the Chesapeake Crater continues to induce subsidence of the land, because of the fractured nature of the earth below these towns and cities at Chesapeake Bay’s mouth.

Figure 6 presents a profile view of the crater, along an east west line through Kiptopeke on the Delmarva Peninsula. One can begin to appreciate the extent, immensity and effects of the fracturing that the meteor impact had for tens or hundreds of miles outward from the impact point.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Diagram showing profile view of the complex structure of the Chesapeake Crater. The Sewell’s Point tide gage is some 6 miles south-southeast of NASA-Langley; the crater complex is 50 miles across.  (Source:  upload.wikimedia.org)

Contrary to the scare stories, including the recent one from NPR, sea levels have been rising at Hampton Roads, Virginia for a long time – certainly since the Wisconsin Ice Age ended, and probably since the Little Ice Age finally thawed out, beginning in the 1800s.

The Sewell’s Point tide gage shows that the rate of sea level rise has not changed since the gage was installed in 1927, and is unchanged from our use of fossil fuels. It’s time to base our policies on sound science, instead of manmade global warming fiction and scare stories.

Robert W. Endlich, resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico, served as a Weather Officer in the U. S. Air Force for 21 Years. From 1984 until 1993 he provided toxic corridor and laser propagation support to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. He has worked as software instructor and software test engineer at New Mexico State University and published in the technical literature.

He was elected to Chi Epsilon Pi, the national Meteorology Honor Society, while a basic meteorology student at Texas A&M University. He has a bachelor’s degree in geology from Rutgers University and a master’s in meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University.

Author: Robert Endlich

Robert W. Endlich served as Weather Officer in the USAF for 21 Years. From 1984-1993, he provided toxic corridor and laser propagation support to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. He has published in the technical literature and worked as software test engineer. He was elected to Chi Epsilon Pi, the national Meteorology Honor Society, while a Basic Meteorology student at Texas A&M University. He has a BA degree in Geology from Rutgers University and an MS in Meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University.