Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by water. The beaches, the boundary between the oceans and the other 30% of the surface where we live, are constantly battered by waves.
But before we get on to that, this week we have a new Patron. Many thanks to all the Patrons who donate to support the Sustainable Futures Report and a special welcome to newest Patron Philip Mellen. More details about how you too can show your support at the end of this episode.
Also this week I’ve had some feedback from new listener Adrian Bond with a detailed critique of some of my previous episodes. Well without feedback we can’t make things better, can we? I’m hoping to have an in-depth chat with Adrian before long.
And now to the main event. My guest on the Sustainable Futures Report this time is Kim McCoy, author of the third edition of the book, Waves and Beaches.
AD: The purpose of the interview, Kim is to talk about the book. But I'd like to talk a bit about you first of all, because I've come across a picture of you in the book and the caption says, adventurer, oceanographer, engineer, inventor, sailor, free diver, paraglider and polyglot.
Would you like to fill in a bit on that before we actually go on and talk in more detail about the book?
KM: Well, it's, it's been fun so far. I lived in seven countries, including England, I went to school in England for a while near London. I went to university in the US, Germany, and France. I lived in Italy. I was a principal scientist with NATO for a few years, lived in England for five years. And along the way, you just sort of collect things, hobbies, and interests and passions. And I've been free-diving since I was about 11. Also breath-hold diving, although I also did tank diving.
I've done over 40 major field experiments, domestic and foreign all over the world, worked with the National Science Foundation. I ran a company for the better part of 30 years, and we designed to build oceanographic instruments. And we sold those all over the world participated in experiments with all sorts of institutions.
I spent about a year of my life in polar regions, including nine trips to polar regions.
AD: I think that really gives us a lot of information about why you are the man who should have published this book, which we're going to talk about Waves and Beaches: The Powerful Dynamics of Sea and Coast. The third edition, which you have produced will be published next week.
Coastal Wave Dynamics
KM: I'd spent years doing coastal wave dynamics. So that's why I'd use the book as a textbook. So I was front-loaded with the expertise, shall I say, and experience in the field? So it was just a natural for me.
AD: Okay, well, as you say, the book’s a textbook but it's more than a textbook, I think. I think it's a guidebook for some people, a textbook for other people. I mean, as a textbook, it's got some pretty spectacular photographs, which you don't normally expect to find in an academic manual. Who, in fact, is this aimed at? I think there's quite a wide range of potential readers, isn't it?
KM: Well, it's, it's really anyone who's interested in the coastline. For some people, the coastline is an emotional thing. You know, they go there for quiet and open spaces. And some people look at the coast, you know, they’re coastal engineers. So, this book is really a hybrid of emotions, and equations. So it's a difficult thing to say, who's the readership? Because there are certainly people that are rotor heads, you know, people like myself that studied math and physics and other disciplines that will find very, very useful information in it. But they're also people that will just read the captions of the photographs, and acquire very substantial understanding of how the coast interacts with the sea.
AD: Yeah, because you, you've got detailed mathematical calculations and explanations to the dynamics of waves on the one hand. The chapter which I've found particularly interesting, of course, was number five, “The Winds and Waves of Climate Change.” Climate change is a game changer, isn't it? How, from a waves and beaches perspective, are we going to see changes?
KM: “The Winds and Waves of Climate Change” is really a large net over trying to let people first understand that changes are occurring. And, and some of these changes, most of these changes are very difficult to comprehend if you just stand and look at the ocean for a day or two. These are subtle things, as is climate change. And it really is affecting everybody's lives. And if you live on a coast that is rather gradual slope like it is on the eastern coast of the UK where the Humber River empties into the North Sea, not too far from Hornsea. That area was formed 1000s and 1000s of years ago, the land, shall we say, through sedimentary processes. So sediments were carried either by ocean waves transport along the coast, or they were eroded cliffs that were undermined by waves, collapsed, get ground up by the waves, and then it forms the beach sediment. And so how will climate change impact that?
Sea Level Rise
I'll take it local to the eastern coast of Britain. Over the last 100 years, sea level has risen by about 15 centimeters, that's about six inches. And in an area where you have a promontory granitic, very solid rock, it's not going to matter very much. However, if you're in an area that has a gradual slope, it will not only erode the coastline, but it will also remove the coastline. And with a slope of one in 100, some areas even have one in 1000. So that means if you have a six-inch change in sea level. That means in a one in 100 slope, you lose 50 feet of shoreline. So it's cut back by 50 feet just with 15 centimeters. Now, that's long-period things, it's not going to be happening…Anthony, you and I are not going to see another 15 centimeters for the balance of our lifetime. But people that are alive today will see much more than that. It's estimated that by the end of the century, that there'll be, again, that much increase in global sea level. Some estimates are 18 centimeters, a little over six inches. And so I think where you live in York… York has been a city for a couple 1000 years, it's been pretty stable for the societies developed over millennia. Now, at the current rate of melting, and if we only look at Greenland, in 1000 years, of course, long after we are gone, it's estimated that all of the ice, the glacial ice in Greenland will be melted. That will add about seven meters, about 25 feet, to sea level. Now, York is roughly at seven meters above sea level. So York will be coastal zone by the time Greenland melts. And if we don't change things, the sea will continually impinge in some areas.
Isle of Man
Now, that's the bad news. The good news is if you're on the Isle of Man, the coastline is shifting. So in the Irish Sea there, some of the land is being diminished and other areas it's been deposited such as on the south side.
However, for the people in the Isle of Man, it's been worrisome enough for them that they've had, they've created a national strategy on sea defences, flooding, and coastal erosion. So if we don't do anything in the near term, in the longer term, we're going to have very substantial problems. So building in coastal floodplains are areas that are subject to storm surges, the country across the North Sea such as the Netherlands and Belgium, primarily Netherlands, they've had massive engineering endeavours completed successfully to protect the coastline. The Rotterdam barrier is that immense structure. And so they take a long-term approach to known challenges and work accordingly.
Those are some things in the UK area and the North Sea area that are very, very obvious. I just read last week that near the Isle of Wight, the Hurst Castle, part of the wall is falling into the sea. That was built during Tudor times with Henry the Eighth. It’s something that's been stable since the 1540s is no longer stable. Now that's sort of a little, I mean, things fall down. But this thing fell into the sea. It's no longer subtle if one wants to observe it. If you want to have an ostrich approach to it, nothing's changing. The sand will look the same if your head’s in it. But if you look at the data, and luckily, we have lots of satellite data, and really millions of sensors spread between being in the sea, on the land and viewed from satellites, really millions of data points every day, we're now understanding some very, very subtle things. The movement is not going in a good direction.
AD: Well, if we take a global view, a large number of international capital cities, on rivers and on river estuaries, what can we do about that? I mean, they are surely going to be at risk. Are we able to manage that risk? Or are we going to have to see these cities moving inland?
KM: Well, you touched on something that is hopefully gaining much more attention on an international level. The city of Jakarta, for instance. The management, the politicians recognise that there is an inundation problem in Jakarta, Indonesia, and for a decade or two, they started building sea walls. They realised the roughly 20 kilometres of sea walls that they built is not enough. And they're being over-topped. Jakarta’s situation is complex. The land is sinking, at the same time, the global sea level is rising.
But what really matters for an individual is what's happening where they live. So I'll refer to sea level as local sea level. And so the municipality needs groundwater for various purposes, and they pump that out. And if you can imagine, as you pump out liquids below land, the land sinks slowly. And so the land is sinking and sea level is rising. It’s a double whammy. So they have plans to relocate portions of Jakarta. I think there's even funding and legal processes have been undertaken to relocate that.
Now, if we move to the border of Bangladesh and India, there in the Brahmaputra, Ganges Delta, and there's a picture in Waves and Beaches about that. It's somewhere around 10 million people that are estimated that are going to be relocated, because of sea level change. The Ganges Brahmaputra Delta has the greatest sediments of any river in the world. It has sediments that are estimated to be about 20 kilometres deep in some areas, it's been taking stuff out of the Himalayas for millennia. Glaciers melt, there's various sources to glaciers and rains , carrying sediments out to the delta and depositing in the bay. And they deposit there for 20 kilometres of depth.
Now, what's happening to the glaciers in the Himalayas? Well, they're melting, and after a while, there won't be any more of it to melt. So, the flow through the delta is going to be changing. So the sediment dynamic is changing. And in most of the major rivers in the world, they built dikes along the river banks. And that causes the water, when there's a large flow of water. So large rain or spring melt, it flushes out the sediments into deeper water, because you're constraining it. Constrain the flow, a higher velocity, higher speed, and that doesn't allow the sediments to be deposited and then form the Delta it's been which it's been doing for the last 5000 years. So this dynamic for that river system starts in the Himalayas. It ends basically, when the sediments are lost in into the bay, into the Indian Ocean.
Another area that's being affected by the winds and waves of climate change is in the South Pacific. The island nation of Kiribati is not well known to the average person living in Europe or North America. But it's been the site of a terrible suite of battles in World War II between the Japanese and the Americans. And the people there survived it. Later in the 50s, and 60s unfortunately, they tested nuclear weapons there. And the people survived. There, some of them were relocated, but people have been living there. Now, what's driving them away, is changing sea levels, and changing weather patterns. The people in Kiribati have been relocating for over a decade, some of them to Australia in other areas. They're trying to purchase land, I think they've been successful.
It may be the first country on earth to disappear. It's going under. That's combined with global sea surface temperatures. So the upper water, the upper few meters, is what influences what the coral reefs experience. There's a relationship between coral reef bleaching events, the die off of the coral reefs, and water temperatures. Unfortunately, Kiribati has had a couple of very major coral reef die offs, and it hasn't recovered from the one that occurred five or 10 years ago. It's like 60, or 70 percent (I can't remember the exact number) of the reef is died off.
Great Barrier Reef
AD: And the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying off. Unfortunately, isn't it?
KM: The reefs are dying in many places. Coral is a complex, symbiotic organism, you know, there's some phytoplankton that live with it. I'm not a biologist, but it’s pretty complex. They live at a certain depth and if they're too high out of the water, they get burned. If they're too low, they don't get enough sunlight. As sea level rises, you think, oh, okay, well, the coral reef is just going to grow in a different location, while sea level is rising too fast for the coral to build up. So a tree that grows, you know, three or four feet a meter in a year, hey, it's not a problem if the riverbank is moving around there, you can get large and roots go out. Some corals only grow a millimeter.
There's a deep-water corals that, that grow millimeters in decades. So it's really a very slow process for the organism, however, very fast process for sea level rise. And a very subtle thing with Kiribati is the wind climate has changed. So it's a hard thing for your eye to look out the window and say, oh, that wind is changed by 0.5% over the last 10 years. But satellite data can tell us this. And it's shown that the wind speeds have increased a small amount, very small in the 1% range. And the direction of the storms has changed slightly. And what coral reefs do, they have what's called a spring groove alignment, sort of like your fingers sticking out, and those spring groove alignments are basically perpendicular to the wave front as they come in. And now you have a different direction of the waves during storms. So what usually occurs is the wave comes in, it goes up in between the wave and spring grooves, goes up over in the lagoon and creates the flushing of the lagoon. So when you have a change in the intensity, you get more water going up over, you get saltwater inundation into the freshwater groundwater. So it renders the freshwater no longer palatable for human consumption and crop growing. We know these things are happening. They're well documented, many, many peer review documents. Waves and Beaches has about 150 references in the back. So if you want to auger in, dig in a little bit deeper into these things, there's all sorts of reasons is available for the reader of Waves and Beaches.
AD: Just on the point you've been developing, we have, the world has the objective to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hopefully it will. But if it does, are we going to avoid these sea level rises or is that built in already?
KM: Before any Homo Sapiens were around, for millions of years, the highest co2 level in the atmosphere was about 300 parts per million. We have now gone above 400 parts per million. It's the highest it's been in millions of years. And we also know that it's continuing to increase. The rate of increases is still going up… we're not reducing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we're still adding to it by gigatons every year. So there's an overshoot, and that actually, that's an area that I worked in for a while. If we stopped putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, we'd still be stuck with the 415, something like that, that's per million. And that is still way too high. So if you go, Okay, let's see, let's stabilise at 400 parts per million. Let's see how long it takes for the Earth to respond to that. The answer is, it's not good. All the ice is gone. By that time York is underwater.
There are obvious things which can be done, which is decrease our production of the gigatons of carbon dioxide every year. People, of course, look at the economies that are affected by that. That's a complex societal and political question. Financial question. I'm not trying to answer that one. But that's an obvious thing that you need to do.
Another thing is population. It's very unpopular to talk about population control. It's probably GDP heresy. Oh, you want to limit the number of workers? Oh, wait, what are we going to do? How are we going to pay for the pensions? What are we going to say?
But humans, the anthropogenic human produce carbon dioxide, that's where it comes from. So I'm not condoning or supporting or not, but it's an obvious portion of the equation. And then we have, how we utilize what we use our energy for when we're doing things. For instance, we're talking on a computer. The amount of energy that goes to the number of mega joules that go into building a laptop is non trivial. So how does one reduce the amount of co2? You know, if you buy a laptop every other year? Well, you're using a lot of energy. Buy a phone every other year? That's a lot of energy. Do you really need one? Well, sure. They're neat, and they're advertised. And so public relations tells everybody it's great. So everyone goes off and buys them like sheep. Unfortunately, we're adding to that problem. And individuals can change the behaviours without compromising their lifestyles one iota.
AD: Well, Kim, I think we could talk for hours on this. And we're just really only talking about one chapter so far. But thank you very much for your ideas and your insights. And thank you for doing this book, because I think many readers will find it very interesting, very useful, I think sailors and surfers, as well as oceanographers – we'll all find something in it. And as we said, it's published next week. Thank you very much for talking to the “Sustainable Futures Report” about it.
KM: Well, thank you, Anthony, for having me. And for those who want to find it, Waves and Beaches is available at www.patagonia.com. Thank you very much for being aware of things. I hope that York stays far from coastal zones during the balance of our lifetime.
AD: Well, so do I. Yes, yes.
Many thanks to Kim McCoy. As he said, the book is published by Patagonia, the outdoor clothing people. There’s a specific link to the book on the Sustainable Futures Report website in the text of this episode.
Next week it’s back to the magazine format. I’ll have to decide which of the 26 stories I’ve so far identified I can actually use. I’m also putting together a showcase edition, bringing together a range of items from previous episodes. Look out for that very soon. The episode for 26th March will be about Earth Hour. Earth Hour itself takes place on the following day, Saturday 27th March.
Before I go I promised to tell you how you too can become a Patron like many other people, including our latest foundation supporter, Philip Mellen. For a small monthly contribution you can help me cover the costs of the Sustainable Futures Report. It’s the only source of income as there’s no advertising, sponsorship or subsidies. As a Patron you will have exclusive access to the A-Z of Sustainability which I’m launching this month. (A is for Action as I told you last time - and for a lot more besides.) I’m always grateful to patrons for information and ideas. If you want to sign up you’ll find the details at patreon.com/sfr.
Thank you for listening.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.