Global Warming Study of East End Sparks Debate on Sea Rise

By Stewart Ain
Copyright 1998 New York Times
October 4, 1998

Those living on the coast are in trouble," George Abar said after watching Southampton Beach being washed away in a hurricane.

It was only a computer-generated video, prepared by Mr. Abar's organization, the National Environmental Trust in Washington, to illustrate what could happen if global warming causes a three-foot rise in sea levels. When combined with a 10-foot storm surge from a Category Two hurricane, like the one that struck the Gulf Coast last week and others that have hit Long Island several times in this century, Southampton Beach would be all but destroyed.

Mr. Abar said his organization prepared the video to "try to take abstract notions and make them compelling. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words."

According to a scenario accepted by many (but by no means all) scientists, a three-foot sea-level rise would not occur for at least a century. But the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based private group, argues that to avoid future catastrophe, action must be taken now to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, produced mostly by burning fossil fuels. Many climatologists fear that these gases will raise global temperatures, causing a partial melting of the polar icecaps and raising sea levels worldwide.

"Some sea-level rise is inevitable because of pollution now in our atmosphere," Mr. Abar said. "The question is, are we going to respond to these changes?"

Mr. Abar said he would like to see the United States adopt the agreement reached last year by 160 nations in Kyoto, Japan, in which the major industrialized nations are required by the years 2008 to 2012 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. Adoption of the treaty by the United States is stalled in Congress by critics who argue that the cost of compliance outweighs the uncertain benefits.

Mr. Abar said Southampton was chosen for this study because of its high profile and concentration of expensive beachfront real estate. But the 29-page report accompanying the video made clear that the impact of rising sea levels would be felt Island-wide.

In 100 years, it said, the South Fork could be split into at least three sections; Jones Beach, Fire Island, the Hamptons beaches and Pikes Beach could all be under water; the coastlines in Bayville, Asharoken, Huntington Bay and the Great South Bay could be littered with the ruins of docks, seawalls and homes, and countless inland backyards in places like Middle Island and Yaphank could be at greater risk of flooding because of a rising water table.

"Global warming," the report said, "threatens to spell the end of much of what we know Long Island has to offer, washing it away by rising seas and destroying for the future the Island's historic past."

The video was created using an overlay of detailed pictures from the National Aerial Photography Program and elevation data from the United States Geological Survey. Using the elevation data of Southampton Beach, the computer digitally replaced land with water.

Other factors, including changes in patterns of tidal scouring and other forms of erosion, were not taken into account, and Mr. Abar warned that the computer-generated images should not be used to predict the fate of any single piece of property. As presented by the report, however, the overall trend seemed ominous.

Others were skeptical of the report. Candace Crandall, a policy research associate with the Science and Environmental Policy Project of Fairfax, Va., assailed the study, describing the National Environmental Trust as "a propaganda mill, not a research organization."

"They are out to promote global warming as a scare across the country," she said. "That's what they are doing, so I take all of what they are saying with a grain of salt."

Ms. Crandall said that the estimate of a three-foot rise in sea level is based on the worst-case scenario presented in a 1996 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This was the panel's third report on the issue in this decade, she said, and each one forecast a smaller rise in temperature and sea level.

"The problem is shrinking into nothing," she said. "I'm seeing more and more scientists who are acknowledging that there is considerable dispute" about the impact of global warming.

Her group's research, Ms. Crandall said, appears to indicate that global warming is occurring, but that it will increase evaporation, which will fall as snow and ice on polar areas and thereby lower the sea level. "There seems to be an indication that the evaporation-precipitation factor may be the greater effect," she said.

But Vivien M. Gornitz, a climate expert who joined Mr. Abar at a briefing on the study, said there is no doubt that global warming will push the sea level higher by a "couple of inches in 30 years. In the worst-case scenario, it would increase by eight inches. Major floods that used to occur every 100 years could occur once every 30 years."

Dr. Gornitz asserted that what is needed is better coordination between agencies in developing coastal policy.

"What is going on on Long Island is absolute chaos in terms of coastal management," said Dr. Gornitz, a scientist at Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "There is no management whatsoever. Whoever has the most political and economic clout gets his way."

Such conflict was evident early this year when neighbors objected to the erection of a 175-foot steel bulkhead in front of the home of Ronald and Isobel Konecky in Bridgehampton. Southampton Town called the work illegal. When the town later held a public hearing on a proposed six-month moratorium against the erection of bulkheads, more than 100 people showed up to protest.

The Konecky case flared just a week after a reported $1 million erosion-control project failed to protect the oceanfront home of their neighbor, William Rudin. The project had consisted of oversized sandbags that were placed in a semicircle in front of the Rudin house.

One of the consultants on the project blamed vandalism -- a knife slash in one of the sandbags -- for leaving the system vulnerable to an Atlantic storm the night of Jan. 28.

But Robert S. DeLuca, president of the Group for the South Fork, scoffed at that assertion, saying: "If you can bring down a million-dollar structure with a pocket knife, you probably shouldn't have built it in the first place."

Mr. DeLuca, who also attended the National Environmental Trust's briefing last week, said there are $10 billion worth of second home investments on the East End. But even those who do not own beachfront property use the beach, he said, and "if the beach disappears from erosion, it will be a less attractive area to live."

The National Environmental Trust study said the "state's coastal economy is its lifeblood. Anti-environmental rhetoric is filled with assertions about how much it will cost to stop global warming. This report speculates on what it will cost to lose our natural resources."

The report said that in 1996, tourism on the Island, much of it shore-related, employed about 152,000 people, 14 percent of the Island's jobs. Chief among the lures of Southampton, it said, is the town's sandy, white beach, more than 20 miles long.

"Unfortunately," it said, "that beach is eroding at an average of 1.7 feet per year and is facing extinction from the very forces that created it, plus something else: the melting of polar glaciers and the hydrologic thermal expansion brought on by global warming."

Southampton Town and Southampton Village are now both developing coastal studies, and Mr. DeLuca said he will press to have global warming included as a factor in long-term planning on the South Fork.

Mr. DeLuca said his organization advocates the development of a post-storm recovery plan to determine how and what should be built along the beachfront. And he said there should be a buyout program for those who have lost 80 percent of their homes to soil erosion and the sea.

Mr. Abar offered one lesson to shorefront homebuyers: "Don't take a 30-year mortgage on a home that may be gone in 30 years."

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