Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September's CAKE Advice Column

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf of Sea Level Rise

Dear Adaptation Mavens,
We have an office betting pool and are wagering on the best way to deal with sea level rise. Should we build sea walls or just move out of the way? There’s a lot riding on the right answer. We agreed that it would take decades of waiting to see the right answer for ourselves, so have agreed in the meantime to have you settle the debate.
Awaiting your reply,
Getting Anxious, Maybe Becoming a Little Eager for Reassurance

We’re not sure if we can settle your bet—the “right” answer to a question like this is dependent on your local situation--but we can tell you what people, organizations, and governments are doing and how they’ve decided what’s right for them.
Start by thinking about planning for sea level rise in terms of the fairy tale about the three little pigs….only different.

In this story we start with Pig One who made his house out of bricks This pig wants to be able to resist whatever climate change throws his way. He’s set up his strong barrier and when the big bad wolf of climate change says “Little pig, little pig let me in,” he says “Nope.” And he continues to say this until the big bad wolf becomes a category five storm surge and floods the inside of his fortress, at which point it’ll be hard to get all the water and damp out the fortress. However until then Pig One is sitting pretty. Well, kind of pretty. He’s dry and all but he doesn’t have any functional coastline that filters run-off from his fortress or provides habitat for the young fish he’ll want to eat some day. But as long as he can afford to desalinate and filter his water and stock up on Spam, it’s all good. Pig One is the kind of gambler who puts all his money on one horse or all his eggs in one basket. If it works out he wins big, but his chances of losing it all are much greater than if he had bet on multiple horses.

Home of Pig One (Photo courtesy of Lara Hansen)

Pig One has a sister, aptly named Pig Two, who lives down the road. She’s attempting to be resilient to climate change. She designed her house so that it can float on the floodwaters, and used relatively affordable materials so that she had enough savings to repair or rebuild as necessary. Like a willow in the wind she will go with the flow and return after the storm to something close to her original state. When the big bad wolf of climate change says “Little pig, little pig let me in,” she says “Give it your best shot.” And she continues to say this until the big bad wolf is the Greenland Ice Shelf collapsing and raising sea level 7 m. The pilings keeping her house in place aren’t that tall, so this overwhelms her ability to happily float through storms. In truth the 7 m of sea level rise won’t happen suddenly and Pig Two or her descendents will likely have moved inland well before it gets to this point, but the bottom line is that if sea level rise goes beyond a certain point, she’ll lose her house. Pig Two is the kind of gambler who hedges her bets and never bets it all.

Home of Pig Two (Photo from Momoy.com)

These two pigs have another sibling whose name is Herbert. This pig is responsive to climate change. She made a tent out of non-petroleum-based waterproof fabric. She can move her tent to higher ground as storms and sea level rise threaten its well-being, and when the big bad wolf of climate change says “Little pig, little pig let me in,” she says “No can do, I don’t live there anymore.” Like a nomad, she goes to greener pastures when things start looking wet and deep where she’s been living.  Her tent is extremely affordable, so it’s easy to make another should the first be badly damaged or wear out. She can do this forever, or until she runs out of places to go, resources to get there, or the heart to do it. She also can’t see Pig One and Pig Two as often as she used to when they all lived on the same block. She loses some of her traditional pig family identity and Pigs One and Two don’t always know where to mail her birthday card. Herbert is the kind of gambler who knows when to hold ‘em but is also ready to fold ‘em, and she folds them a lot.
Home of Herbert (Image from Big Agnes)

OK, so this isn’t exactly what the little pigs did when you learned this story in kindergarten, but we are pretty sure the original story was mistranslated. The challenge with climate change, sea level rise included, is that the right answer at one time and/or place will not be the right answer at some other place or time. In fact you may very well need multiple right answers in a single location. For example San Francisco Bay Area organizations (http://www.cakex.org/directory/organizations/san-francisco-bay-conservation-and-development-commission) are consciously grappling with what combination of resistance, resilience and response will be employed across their region. Locations that house expensive and regionally important pieces of infrastructure, such as airports, will get sea walls or other protection. Other stretches of shoreline will not, because if you were to put hard barriers around the entire San Francisco Bay you would have a very dysfunctional hydrological system which is as unacceptable to the people of the region as inundation from sea level rise. In places with less infrastructure to protect, the focus is often on restoration of coastal form and function, such as Grasses in Classes in Baldwin County, AL (http://www.cakex.org/case-studies/839).  In the Netherlands (find more at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18229027  or http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.2112/07A-0016.1) there’s a shift from a historic approach based primarily on resistance to one that incorporates resilience and response as well. Humans will continue to explore options and evaluate societal acceptance of the pros and cons, costs and benefits, relative to their particular situation. You’ll have to do this in your own situation all well, and be prepared to change paths if what you are doing is not working either biologically, physically or socially.

Sorry to say you will have to return everyone’s bet because there is no clear winner on our watch. Alternatively you could send the money to the Mavens and we’ll put the funds to good use.

Adaptively yours,
The Adaptation Mavens