Our View: Hotter earth also means hotter water

May 15, 2007 11:00 pm

Popular understanding of global warming largely centers on air temperature - people typically envision hotter and drier conditions. But change the earth's air temperature, and you also affect the water temperature of rivers and even oceans. For a community such as ours, with so many livelihoods dependent on the wild rivers and coastal waters, those changes ought to be of great concern.

The reality is that as air temperatures rise, glacier melt in the Arctic and Antarctic will cause higher sea levels. By 2100, sea levels likely will rise between 6 inches in the best-case scenario and 30 inches in the worst case, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Water temperatures also will rise by at least a couple of degrees. Meanwhile, more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow in inland mountain areas, according to the state's multi-agency report "Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California," released last summer. The result will be warmer water feeding many rivers and a greater number of floods.

The effect on Del Norte County will be devastating. If ocean levels rise 30 inches, the Crescent City coastline would move inward, reducing the distance between the S.S. Emidio Memorial and the shore by a third. Tidal flats along the coast would be pushed inland, eliminating much of Enderts and South beaches and inundating nearby U.S. Hwy. 101 and Sand Mine Road. In either case, wetlands would shift east to built-up areas and coastal erosion will accelerate, pushing the tsunami evacuation zone further inland. Ultimately, rising water temperatures will alter ocean ecosystems, meaning many types of aquatic life and sea birds won't be able to live here. Salmon and other fish in the Klamath, Smith and Chetco rivers will be further stressed, potentially reducing their numbers to the point where they can not be fished or even to the point of extinction.

Such climate change means a rewriting of our economic base. Tourism and commercial fishing are dependent on a number of animals affected by rising ocean temperatures. Whether it is sportfishing on the Smith River or birdwatching along the coast, whether it be salmon or albacore pulled up by the commercial fishing boats, hundreds of jobs that now exist are at risk. In addition, rising sea levels means the very nature of our town will be reconstructed as we lose coastline and U.S. Hwy. 101 must be raised or rerouted inland. Property values will shift as some people find their homes and businesses partially underwater.

Of course, this is not the full picture. Changes in ocean and air temperatures also will affect fog levels, which provide precipitation for our redwoods, and likely will increase the severity of storms that could batter our coast. But the conclusion is unequivocal: There are consequences to warming the Earth, and they will be felt here in very short order.