Maritimes 'on losing end' of sea-level rise predictions, warns researcher

A marine research ecologist at Dalhousie University says New Brunswick and the rest of the Maritimes would be among the hardest hit by sea-level rises outlined in a new report by the U.S. government.

U.S. report says ocean levels could increase between 0.35 metres and 2.5 metres by 2100

Boris Worm studies the oceans at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (Bob Murphy/CBC)

A marine research ecologist at Dalhousie University says New Brunswick and the rest of the Maritimes would be among the hardest hit by sea-level rises outlined in a new report by the U.S. government.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is similar to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, predicts that by the year 2100, sea levels could rise between 0.35 metres (one foot) and 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), depending on what efforts are made to reduce climate change.

The effect on different regions would vary depending on several factors, such as the shape of ocean basins, the gravitational pull of the continents and ice masses, as well as the currents and tides, said associate professor Boris Worm.

New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy already boasts the world's highest tides.

The idea here is to buy time so we can adapt.- Boris Worm, marine research ecologist

"So this means really that the Maritimes is at the losing end of this game," said Worm.

The report, entitled Global Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States, is based on new insights about the Antarctic ice shelf.

The large ice masses, hundreds of metres thick, that sit on the ocean floor and extend above the surface, were previously thought to be reasonably stable because there wasn't much melt water coming off them, said Worm.

However, researchers have discovered that the ice shelf is melting from the inside out, due to ocean temperatures rising.

"So what we're expecting is that large parts of it could break off and slide into the ocean and that would cause some very rapid sea level rise and that's why this extreme scenario that nobody thought was possible has now become more likely," said Worm.

'Utterly catastrophic'

The upper limit prediction of 2.5 metres would be "utterly catastrophic," he said.

But it is a worst-case scenario, assuming nothing is done to halt climate change, said Worm, noting steps are being taken in Canada.

Still, New Brunswick is expected to see a 0.35 metre increase by the end of the this century, regardless of any reductions in fossil fuel emissions, said Worm.

"No matter what we do, that will happen, according to this report," he said. "It may happen as soon as 2030. Or, if more is done to slow climate change, it could happen as late as 2080."

Rises also bring increase in storm surges

A storm surge in Val Comeau last month saw 'millions' of lobsters washed up on the beach. (Jean Benoit/Facebook)

Every 0.35 metre increase also increases the likelihood of powerful storm surges, which coastal New Brunswickers are all too familiar with, by 25 times, said Worm.

As it stands, surges that are powerful enough to cause significant damage and threaten human life occur in the U.S. about every five years.

Based on the report, "what happened every five years will happen five times a year in the future — meaning all the time," he said.

"The idea here is to buy time so we can adapt," by developing strategies to protect vulnerable coastal infrastructure, such as building coastal protections and restoring wetlands to serve as storm buffers.

The report was released on the last day of Barack Obama's presidency.

"I can't help but think it was released one day before President [Donald] Trump came into office because there was a sense that if he was in office, it might never be released," said Worm.

"And that's, I think, what's the most dangerous bit here, is we really have to look at this data with a very clear eye, without fearmongering or anything."

Worm contends the Maritimes as a whole could be more proactive in looking at these new figures, figuring out how they affect the region and how best to plan for those changes.

"And I think that's probably something that's going to happen — soon, I hope."

With files from Information Morning Saint John