Ice is melting and the sea level is rising: But what does this mean for Edinburgh?
POSTED ON September 28, 2022 BY James Garry
There are no impediments to comprehensively assessing the sustainability of new developments in Edinburgh, particularly those in coastal areas, and to taking positive action to future-proof them against emerging risks associated with our changing climate.
“Uncertain times should be reflected in City Plan 2030. The climate emergency is more certain than a return to the growth dynamics of the past”
Rising sea levels are one of the most well-known consequences of global warming, with recent rates being unprecedented over the past 2,500-plus years. Since 1900, sea level has risen between 1 and 2 millimetres per year (10-20 cm per century) on average. Change in global sea level in the future is predicted to occur at a faster rate. The amount of sea level rise depends in large part on the amount of warming. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007), by the mid-2090s global sea level could be 22 to 44 centimetres above its 1990 level and rising at about 4 mm per year.
In addition, there are considerable uncertainties over the future of the world’s largest ice sheets which could cause sea levels to rise dramatically if global temperatures continue to rise, according to new research. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet contains most of the Earth’s glacier ice. This ice sheet was thought less susceptible to the effects of climate change compared to the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. However, researchers at Durham University recently concluded that if global greenhouse emissions remain high, the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet could cause nearly half a metre of sea-level rise by 2100, and between two and five metres by 2500.
Climate science can seem very inaccessible to anyone note fully familiar with the subject at an academic level. However, the potential consequences of sea level rise on Edinburgh and the Forth have been covered fairly frequently by local media in recent years. In late 2018, the Edinburgh Evening News drew attention to the parts of Edinburgh most at risk from devastating sea rise. And again in late 2019, the Edinburgh Evening News revisited the topic, this tine drawing attention to the possibility of some of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks and tourist attractions being destroyed by rising sea levels. Both articles drew on a Coastal Risk map produced by Climate Central: an independent group of scientists and communicators who research and report the facts about our changing climate and how it affects people’s lives. These articles were quickly followed by another in early 2020. This time, Edinburgh Live used the same map data to focus on the individual streets, communities and local businesses that could overwhelmed by the sea in just a few decades. This included much of present-day Leith. Later in 2020, the Edinburgh Evening News again reconsidered local sea level risks with another article based on Climate Central data which studied the potential risk to some of the capital’s communities. And in 2021, Edinburgh Live considered the potential impact on Edinburgh in the event of catastrophic melting of Antarctic ice.
However, coverage of sea level rise by Edinburgh’s local media is the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of climate change related publications. Many other academic articles and scientific publications have addressed this topic in recent years, very few of these have entered public debate. Before the start of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow at the end of 2021 the Scotsman asked when the world was going to act to address sea level rise. Although COP26 asked did provide some publicity for the release of the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) provisional report on the state of the global climate in 2021 which painted an abysmal picture of sea level rise and climate change. The conference itself was criticised for a lack of action and commitment to action on this issue.
So, what can Edinburgh do to adapt to a changing local climate and to ameliorate the potentially negative impacts of sea level rise on local communities and business? It is fairly clear that potential future risks can be managed or even eliminated with sea defenses, coastline realignment, land-use planning, forecasting, and property-level protection. However, not all risks can be avoided, and sea level rise means existing coastal defences and new adaptation strategies will become more difficult and expensive to maintain if they are to continue to offer protection. But, as a starting point, we do have to understand the nature and scale of the risk to Edinburgh.
In our detailed response to City of Edinburgh Council’s consultation on CityPlan 2030, the proposed new city development plan. The Cockburn drew attention to the need to fully explore the impact of rising sea levels on the suitability and feasibility of future development on some of the city’s waterfront areas. Sea level rise, we said, “ should not be considered as a remote possibility but integrated into a revised set of land-use allocations that actively plan for increased storm surges and sea-based flooding”.
Our Unique City, the Cockburn’s Civic conversation about our urban future, suggests that in “Uncertain times should be reflected in City Plan 2030. The climate emergency is more certain than a return to the growth dynamics of the past”. Whilst there remains considerable uncertainty about the detail of the impacts of sea level rise on our city, and of climate change more broadly, that should not be an excuse for not taking proportionate action now to safeguard our vulnerable communities and businesses. In 2015, world leaders agreed at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris to limit global warming to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C. Restricting global temperature increases to below the 2°C limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement should mean that we avoid the worst-case scenarios, or perhaps even halt the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, and therefore limit its impact on global sea level rise. But, at present, it is not clear that these targets will be achieved. However, there are no impediments to comprehensively assessing the sustainability of new developments in Edinburgh, particularly those in coastal areas, and to taking positive action to future-proof them against emerging risks associated with our changing climate.
Main image: Pixabay