Oceans of opinion on climate change

Measuring climate change is fraught with imperfections. Sea levels, for example, are affected by many factors. This uncertainty should be considered when fashioning Australia's response to the climate challenge.

Contrary to some views, there are very few matters within the science of global warming and climate change which are simple whatever side of the debate is considered. This is especially true of certain headline numbers that colour some commentaries.

Take the oceans as an example. The last ice age has been followed by several thousand years of very slow variation in sea levels, less than 2mm rises per decade. But over the last hundred years, changes in average sea levels have increased ten-fold to a steady annual rate of 2mm per year and a total of about 20cm since 1910.

More recent data since 1991 suggest this annual change may have lifted to 3mm per year, and it is argued that the steepening gradient of increase is evidence of the effects of global warming of the oceans arising from use of fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect caused by emissions.

The IPCC has modelled future scenarios which point to a further rise of approximately 40cm by the end of the 21st century albeit with wide margins of uncertainty. Some communities and seaside councils are planning for even more. The historical numbers are not too controversial but their interpretation and the driving mechanisms which inform the model forecasts are.

Firstly, let's consider the measurement task. On average, the depth of the oceans is nearly 4000 metres, or 4 million mm. Measuring annual changes of 2 to 3mm in the position of the surface of the sea is quite a challenge especially as most water surfaces, affected by tides and waves, will not stay obligingly still during the process. The same can be said of newly recognised shifts in the sea floor.

The measurement accuracy needs to be within about 1mm – i.e. less than a part per million. Today's techniques using satellite-borne laser altimeters and tidal gauges achieve such precision, and historical tidal and other data enable a reconstruction of trends over centuries. So, we know that sea levels are, on average, rising and that this could be a problem. Coastal communities may become at risk, damage from storm surges is amplified, coastal flooding and contamination of freshwater supplies may follow.

But some areas are rising faster than others, and some are even falling. Where continental data is available, such as for Australia and the US, there is considerable coastal variation caused by the movement and plasticity of the land masses themselves. And computer models struggle to explain such variations or to forecast future patterns confidently.

The interpretation of our oceans is no less complex than, indeed is coupled to, the understanding of our climate. No matter the simple headlines – the science is seriously complicated.

As our environment warms, the oceans heat up and thermal expansion follows producing rising sea levels. As mountain snow and ice, polar ice caps, and glaciers melt, the volume of our oceans increases as do sea levels.

But Antarctic ice, accounting for more than 80 per cent of the world's land-based ice that affects sea levels, appears to be accumulating not melting. Also, continental plates flex – northwest Australia is bending downwards relative to southeast Australia. Plus, earthquakes produce unpredictable local variations in sea levels unrelated to global warming.

Until recently, the primary drivers of the current 3mm/year sea level increases were calculated to be thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of land ice. But the calculations are very uncertain. Indeed, in recent weeks the New Scientist has highlighted research concluding that more than 40 per cent of reported sea level rise seen between 1961 and 2003 is caused by the extraction of water from underground aquifers leading to compaction and subsidence of land areas, a phenomenon not directly connected to global warming. This adds to concerns about the validity of our climate models given we aren't sure if the sea is rising or the land is sinking, with different mechanisms at work.

Nature and climate change are wondrous things. Global warming, if continued, is associated with small increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration of 2ppm annually which, when combined with 1ppm annual increases in the depth of our oceans, are predicted eventually to cause major upheavals in our environment, sufficient even to threaten civilisation as we know it according to some commentators.

On the other hand, this trend has certainly been present for at least the past 100 years with little observable impact yet upon our lifestyles. And further changes cannot amount to much before mid-century, in part because we've already seen a 0.8 degree temperature increase over the last century and most climate models agree that a further 1 degree increase is ahead by 2050. That is, the first half of this century probably won't be observably different from most of the 20th century from a climate perspective, even as warming progresses.

The question in front of us is the form of intervention we should support today – with its certain costs and penalties – in order to moderate possible problems generations from now. These consequences are calculated to range from barely noticeable to overwhelming.

But, as the debate about the upcoming carbon tax has highlighted, today's costs are evident – loss of energy intensive industries and associated jobs, higher prices, and some reduction in competitiveness of our industries. Tomorrow's ecosystem benefits are distant and ambiguous, or non-existent in the absence of coordinated global action.

One view notes that the development of Australian coastal infrastructure, and our preference for living by the seaside, is only 220 years old beginning with European settlement. Given a lead time of a 100 years or more to adapt to environmental shifts, an affluent society will do so comfortably assuming a collective willingness to act and sensible leadership. So the question becomes whether making adaptation the priority might be a better use of resources for a country like Australia?

Frustratingly, scientists are confident in forecasting trends over centuries but are quite guarded about the near term. We are then confronted with the decision to deploy early 21st century technology and today's money to mitigate the risks and potential damage predicted for the more capable and resourceful 22nd century society.

Tough call.

Ziggy Switkowski is the chancellor of RMIT University and a company director.

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