About the SA Blog Network

Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives
Plugged In HomeAboutContact

Et Tu, Virginia? Again with the Sea Level Rise

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

At the risk of becoming Plugged-In’s “Those crazies are at it again” correspondent, I would like to bring your attention to two noteworthy developments regarding sea level and politics, and then I hope to wash my hands of the topic — with higher sea levels making hand-washing especially convenient, of course.

In case you're interested in actual data. In case.

The first concerns the Commonwealth of Virginia, which – thanks, neighbors! – is taking a bit of the heat off North Carolina’s legislature. In Virginia, as in North Carolina, reasonable lawmakers concerned about changing climate and sea levels commissioned a study. And like in North Carolina, less-reasonable types in the legislature couldn’t stand the idea of addressing things like “sea level rise,” which this piece from the Virginian-Pilot says are considered “liberal code words.” So in order to pass through the legislature the study addressed “recurrent flooding” instead.

Dumb enough, and at least the Virginian legislators didn’t try to legislate the scientific methods as their counterparts in NC had. The problem is, where the Virginia legislators chose language out of fear, the Virginian-Pilot unwittingly piled on. Suggesting that “sea level rise” and “climate change” are perceived as “liberal code words” is perfectly reasonable; unreasonable people do perceive them as such. BIll sponsor Chris Stolle called “sea level rise” “a left-wing term,” after all. But they’re not liberal code words: they’re scientific terms. The Virginian-Pilot should have noted this. More, the Virginian-Pilot called the “recurrent flooding” term the legislators used a “more politically neutral phrase,” which is wrong twice.

In the first place, “recurrent flooding” is to “sea level rise” as “repeated breath holding” is to “drowning.” One is local and manageable; the other is systemic and catastrophic; pretending they’re the same is politics of a high order. More important, “recurrent flooding” is not a more politically neutral phrase. “Sea-level rise” is utterly politically neutral, because it is scientific, not political. It involves data and science, not politics and manipulation. “Recurrent flooding” on the other hand is a completely political phrase because it tries to soft-pedal reality. By buying into the belief that the very phrase “sea level rise” is somehow political, the Virginian-Pilot helps anti-science forces politicize even scientific language, to say nothing of science itself. Please insert your own “Yes, Virginia, …” joke here; at Plugged In we’re just too tired.

If people begin claiming the sky is green (just wait), saying the sky is blue is not political: it’s rational. Wearily agreeing to call the sky “blue according to some scientists” isn’t less-political. It’s suicide. So is this language.

Considering which, thank goodness for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which is running a “Sea No Evil” contest on its Facebook page asking for suggestions for things besides the scientific modeling of sea level rise that the North Carolina legislature could render illegal. The answers are getting good: Rebecca Snider suggests banning medical tests, allowing diagnosis only on the basis of family history; Peter Walz suggests banning meteorological forecasting of record highs or lows, since there’s no historical record of those beforehand. The Federation hopes to eventually get a rational legislator to propose the best suggestions as amendments to the slightly less overtly crazy sea level rise bill when the NC Senate votes on it.

It’s nice to hear reasonable voices. Add yours to the chorus.


Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 41 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. blah11235813 3:43 pm 06/12/2012

    18cm (7inches) rise over the last 100 years?! Man the life boats!

    I live in the mountain west, I guess I’ll have to wait about 8940 years for my beach front property. (linear projection, and yes I know the problems with a linear projection. It’s called sarcasm.)

    Link to this
  2. 2. blah11235813 3:45 pm 06/12/2012

    Woops, sorry forgot a few zeros… 894,000 years. I guess I was a bit eager to build sand castles.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Southern Fried Scientist 4:05 pm 06/12/2012

    Bah, we all know the ocean is draining. Why, just this morning it fell almost 3 feet between 2AM and 8AM on the NC coast. Based on a completely linear extrapolation from this historical data from after 1900, we can expect the ocean to be completely drained by 2026!

    Fight the real scourge of Global Draining –

    Link to this
  4. 4. huler 4:29 pm 06/12/2012

    @Southern Fried Scientist: heart heart heart your post, plus the link to Pilkey’s elegant book. Q: Is anybody who needs educating actually listening?

    Link to this
  5. 5. WIDTAP 4:49 pm 06/12/2012

    In a related story, Virginia has declared that the Titanic continues to have a “recurrent leak”.

    Link to this
  6. 6. N a g n o s t i c 6:01 pm 06/12/2012

    The misanthropic left has been arguing for population reduction since the 1790′s.
    There’s no wonder in the fact that a lot of people look at their gloom’n'doom scenarios with a bit of skepticism.

    Link to this
  7. 7. afrotheria 6:14 pm 06/12/2012

    In fact, there is no such thing as a sea. The sun revolves around the Earth. The Earth is flat. To enquire about things under the Earth and in the heavens is treason against the state.

    And Malthus was a leftist.

    Link to this
  8. 8. mggordon 6:15 pm 06/12/2012

    Where to begin…

    Let’s start with the graph. “In case you’re interested in actual data. In case” — the repeat of the sentence is truncated. Why?

    As it happens, I *am* interested in actual data, but this chart isn’t actual data. It’s a chart. It could have been made from random data superimposed on a line. It isn’t DATA at all.

    What do you get when you mix a LITTLE science with a lot of Huffington Post? See above :-)

    Anyway, the chart seems to be LINEAR more or less, which is what North Carolina has decided should form the basis for policy decisions. Can you argue with that? Of course you can, you just did.

    North Carolina has decided, or is deciding, NOT to use wild assumptions based on unverified and unverifiable exponentially increasing models.

    What you seem to consider unscientific, to me is the very essence of science — using observation to predict the future. It is well established that the future might not follow established trends, but for policy purposes, no other approach makes demonstrable sense.

    Link to this
  9. 9. afrotheria 6:17 pm 06/12/2012

    And, and, scientists are corrupting the youth.

    Has Virginia legalized hemlock yet?

    The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

    Link to this
  10. 10. afrotheria 6:19 pm 06/12/2012

    Black is white! Truth is falsehood! War is peace!

    Will somebody please just start shooting these bastards?

    Link to this
  11. 11. SiaraDelyn 6:22 pm 06/12/2012

    We’ve got to find a way to make these people financially responsible for their decisions…. no federal aide if the sea chooses to break the law and rise. Once they do their ill-advised building, they can finance their repairs themselves (maybe by fining the sea for flooding).

    Time for the rest of the country to draw the line and refuse to back up these wingnuts in any way. We are not responsible for their decision to stop believing in reality.

    Link to this
  12. 12. mggordon 6:28 pm 06/12/2012

    Re: Afrotheria’s claims: “In fact, there is no such thing as a sea.”

    Doubtless true to the Beduin but it probably comes as a surprise to the U.S. Navy.

    “The sun revolves around the Earth.”

    Einstein’s theory of relativity says, among other things, all motion is relative — perhaps the sun is rising in the east, perhaps the east is sinking, quite possibly both at the same time. If you are a farmer, it doesn’t really matter. Rain falls and corn grows. Hooray for farmers.

    “The Earth is flat.”

    Very true around much of Minnesota, North Dakota and Ohio. Other places not so much. If you are a farmer, give thanks for flat earth!

    “And Malthus was a leftist.”

    If you say so. I haven’t looked into it. Myers-Briggs seems to think there’s at least 16 kinds of people, so “leftist, rightist” doesn’t seem like a very useful division.

    Link to this
  13. 13. elderlybloke 6:28 pm 06/12/2012

    A Decade approx. ago I saw a graph of sea level at a place where it had been recorded for about 300 years.
    There was a steady rise all of that time,due I believe to us still emerging from the ice age.
    The record is from well before the Industrial Revolution could have started to have had any effect.

    The graph in this article has the rise at a steady rate for a century , and as most of the industrial output of gases is post 1945 then maybe said gases are not really doing anything significant.
    The problems for America are more the quality of water to drink ,pollution by your industry ,lack of maintance of your transport network,flood protection ,sewage system etc and lack of regulation of almost everything in the name of Capitalism,freedom etc.

    Sea level is not your biggest problem.

    Link to this
  14. 14. ejames429 6:28 pm 06/12/2012

    I used to think that politicians were intelligent, lying, thieving, immoral borderline to complete criminals – however exactly when did they lose the intelligence characteristic and just become Bat Shit Stupid?

    Link to this
  15. 15. mggordon 6:34 pm 06/12/2012

    Author: “If people begin claiming the sky is green (just wait), saying the sky is blue is not political: it’s rational.”
    Obviously it depends on what color the sky at that location happens to be. I’m told that in advance of a tornado the sky will indeed be green, in which case calling it blue does not seem particularly rational.
    Words have no meaning until people give it meaning. If enough people decided that the normal color of the sky, predominantly 400 nanometers wavelength, is henceforth to be called “green” then you can go along with the majority — which is rational — or refuse to change — which is also rational but likely to lead to confusion.
    For instance, to me the word “gay” means happy and carefree. That is what I learned and I see no reason to change it just because some people have decided it has a different meaning.
    Deciding to set government policy based solely on established and validated DATA is “rational” at least as I use each of these words. It may well be that you use these words differently.
    Anyone who proposes that sea level rise is NOT going to continue increasing on the same slope that it has for the past 100 years had better be more persuasive than quoting from wildly varying computer models.

    Link to this
  16. 16. SuperString 6:40 pm 06/12/2012

    What’s the issue, really, for a state legislature to address on this? 1) Build further back from shore. 2) Throw up a seawall of herculean proportions.

    To politicize sea-level rise is stupidity.

    Link to this
  17. 17. mggordon 6:48 pm 06/12/2012

    Re more Afrotheria rant: “scientists are corrupting the youth.”

    Some are, some aren’t.

    “Has Virginia legalized hemlock yet?”

    It is neither legal nor illegal. It’s a plant.

    “Black is white! Truth is falsehood! War is peace!”

    I trust you are familiar with George Orwell’s book “1984″ which links this kind of doublethink to socialism.

    But lets have a bit of fun with it. When I worked in a photographic darkroom, black was indeed white, or represented areas of white. Truth, to a person expecting lies, is falsehood. For instance, suppose you have a chronic liar that always reverses direction. He says the bird flew north, which means south, because he is a liar. But on the occasion he tells the truth, you will believe he meant south, but in fact it is north — thus, truth becomes a lie in the mind of the beholder, and lies become truth. As to “war is peace”, indeed it is to a warrior. The periods between battle are filled with anxiety waiting for the next battle; only in battle can he relax and find peace.

    I have felt this way about sunshine. In parts of Alaska the sun is not very often visible. Usually it is the eye of a storm that brings an hour of sunshine. It also brings anxiety because you know you have exactly one hour to do everything that needs sunshine, such as photography. Hello motor drive camera and six rolls of film in one hour. Makes Alaska look beautiful!

    Since wind and storm were the normal weather, I tended to have a lot more peace of mind during wind and storm.

    “Will somebody please just start shooting these bastards?”

    While it is not clear who you mean by “these bastards”, shootings of people happens daily. I suggest a review of the “thug report” for some interesting details. Of course, should it happen that any shooter claims that you inspired it, you may find yourself not as innocent and anonymous as you probably think.

    Whether Malthus was a leftist is not clear; your advocacy of murder is a lot more clear and typically leftist.

    Link to this
  18. 18. mggordon 6:49 pm 06/12/2012

    Ejames wrote: “exactly when did they lose the intelligence characteristic and just become Bat Shit Stupid?”

    According to the time stamp on your post, it was:

    6:28 pm 06/12/2012

    Link to this
  19. 19. mggordon 6:54 pm 06/12/2012

    SieraDelyn writes “We’ve got to find a way to make these people financially responsible for their decisions”

    Who is “we”? How many of you are in there?

    Who are “these people”?

    In fact, who are YOU to decide for others?

    “no federal aide if the sea chooses to break the law and rise”

    There is no law against the sea rising. Unfortunately there is also no law against stupidity — yours! The law proposes that North Carolina use ESTABLISHED data and methods for making policy decisions. In other words, extend the graph of sea level rise but NOT use hypothetical, untested and untestable computer models to decide government policy.

    Link to this
  20. 20. afrotheria 7:08 pm 06/12/2012

    The so-called “Atlantic Ocean” is only a talking point of liberal propaganda, part of their grand scheme to turn us all into homosexual child-aborting witches, take away our guns, and oppress us with universal health care.

    In fact all that is really there is a very damp sponge.

    When the sea rises one to three meters over the coming century, the Commonwealth of Virginia will simply pass legislation insisting that it be tilted away from the horizontal by a degree or two, thus saving its residents, wildlife habitats, and real estate investments.

    Oh, and – Mr. Gordon has a brain.

    Link to this
  21. 21. afrotheria 7:23 pm 06/12/2012

    Take that, ya darn commies.

    Link to this
  22. 22. Padgie 7:26 pm 06/12/2012

    It is not actually unreasonable to define parameters for processes. Planning regulations and building codes need this. These parameters should be defined and so should derived on the basis of the best information. Which is what science is supposed to be about. It is no doubt in the interest of those with a financial interest to have the results sloped their way. The rest of us will just try and read into it what suits us, ignore what doesn’t and adjust our recall of the event so we were right all along.

    Link to this
  23. 23. afrotheria 7:28 pm 06/12/2012

    As the great non-liberal Winston Churchill said, “We shall fight them on the beaches…”

    Oh, well – maybe not the beaches. But on the shoreline. If we can figure out where it is.

    Link to this
  24. 24. afrotheria 7:30 pm 06/12/2012

    “The rest of us will just try and read into it what suits us, ignore what doesn’t and adjust our recall of the event so we were right all along.”

    Which is exactly what good epistemology is supposed to be about!

    Link to this
  25. 25. Mythusmage 7:49 pm 06/12/2012

    I can see a Virginga policeman ticketing the tide for coming in too high.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Mr. Peabody II 10:03 pm 06/12/2012

    Inland leftists should retaliate by passing legislation requiring that the sea rise faster. Coastal leftists need the support!

    Link to this
  27. 27. Bill Price 10:07 pm 06/12/2012

    The CRC’s Science Panel:
    - Used the Least Reliable Tide Gauge Data.
    - Used Obsolete Reports
    - Used only One-sided Sea Level Rise Reports
    - Used only One-sided Global Warming Reports,
    - Admitted they did no science, only a “Literature Search”.
    - No 4 miles inundation of NC Tidelands over 150 years is visable.
    - Said, ‘What’s the Big Deal, Let’s wait 5 Years and see what happens.’
    - Has ignored questions about the above concerns.
    Thankfully, it looks like NC Legislators want verifiable Science
    upon which to base multi billion dollar public policy decisions that could harm tens of thousands on local, taxpaying property owners.
    This is serious business, and it’s good NC doesn’t base decisions on a comedy skit.
    Bill Price Pine Knoll Shores

    Link to this
  28. 28. Mr. Peabody II 10:22 pm 06/12/2012


    “The law proposes that North Carolina use ESTABLISHED data and methods for making policy decisions. ”

    Established by who? Or by whose standards? Are you claiming that all natural phenomena will follow “established” patterns? Are you suggesting that The State has the right to forbid local governments from taking actions to prevent further damage from changes they are witnessing with their own eyes and in their own lifetimes — simply because the actions that they want to take are not “right-wing PC”?

    Yes. As a matter of fact, you are.

    Link to this
  29. 29. VIP 10:30 pm 06/12/2012

    I don’t know why some people are concerned to be about rising sea levels. They appear to be the flat earth believers and any surplus water will just spill over.

    Link to this
  30. 30. afrotheria 7:24 am 06/13/2012

    In fact, the so-called material universe itself is only an item of liberal/leftie historical materialist propaganda, a ploy to make us all slaves of the Marxist Democratic Party state. Principled conservatives know that the unfettered free market, so long as it is run as it properly should be according to the laws of nature described by Adam Smith by corporations backed up by lavish government subsidies, will create wealth and reality itself for us endlessly ex nihilo, without being constrained by so-called ‘matter’ such as the purported ‘sea’ and its ‘level’. So long as we are not homosexual liberal scroungers, who want to have babies when they are not aborting them so that they can live in mansions while collecting welfare. Watch Fox News to get the inside story about these ‘scientists’ and their evil schemes…

    Link to this
  31. 31. afrotheria 7:28 am 06/13/2012

    There are only three kinds of people. Those who can do math, and those who can’t.

    Link to this
  32. 32. afrotheria 8:51 am 06/13/2012

    There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark…

    Link to this
  33. 33. afrotheria 10:02 am 06/13/2012

    skip… skip… skip…

    Link to this
  34. 34. Southern Fried Scientist 11:03 am 06/13/2012

    @huler Thanks. Did you see Pilkey’s op ed on sea level rise from last February –

    I live in coastal North Carolina and have yet to meat anyone, conservative or liberal, who’s family has lived here for more than a generation that doesn’t see problems with sea level rise and climate change, so I think people are listening (and developers are listening too, they just don’t care because they have a financial stake in artificially inflating the prices of the real estate they want to pawn off on unsuspecting clients). That’s the nasty thing about the NC bill, it’s not about science denial or political posturing, it’s about manipulating the real estate market to screw historic coastal communities out of their homes so that developers can dump more condos into unstable shorelines before the market, literally, floods.

    Link to this
  35. 35. afrotheria 12:09 pm 06/13/2012

    It is going to funny watching all those recently built condos, slowly rusting, crumbling away, and getting covered with barnacles a short distance out in the surf, from the new temporary coastline. What a monument to civilization they will be…

    Link to this
  36. 36. afrotheria 1:59 pm 06/13/2012

    Link to this
  37. 37. Chris G 12:01 pm 06/14/2012

    Polling at actual research,

    there does seem to be a discussion of accelerating sea level rise amongst those that should know the most about it.

    Looking at (paleo)historical data,

    I’m not seeing any occurrences in the past where the change in sea level between one climate state to another has been what could be called linear. So, wondering why anyone would think it should be linear this time.

    Thermal expansion and ice sheet mass loss contribute to sea level rise, and the ice sheets are losing mass at an accelerating rate.

    Wondering where the legislators think this water will end up if not the ocean.

    From the simplest perspective I can manage, what makes these legislators think ice doesn’t melt faster when it’s warmer?

    Link to this
  38. 38. Tractorthoughts 5:08 pm 06/14/2012

    Indiana legislature almost passed a bill that would have declared pi to be 3.2. They came to their senses when someone pointed out that math can’t be legislated. Neither can science.

    Link to this
  39. 39. huler 5:18 pm 06/14/2012

    Thanks, @tractorthoughts, and kudos for actually knowing the truth behind that long-circulating story (note to other readers: happened in 1897, btw). The Indiana legislators eventually came to their senses. Let’s see if they do in Virginia or NC. I live in NC, and I’m betting no.

    Link to this
  40. 40. mudplanet 6:23 pm 07/8/2012

    Gravity’s a myth – the earth sucks.

    The best part of this article is the idjits posting responses to ridicule the author’s point but actually proving it.

    Link to this
  41. 41. DrRoboto 11:42 am 02/15/2013

    It is a quaint and idealistic notion that science is not “political,” but, in fact, there is much evidence that it is. It is well-known that “scientific” results can be tainted by opinion. Why is it that we have single-blind and double-blind studies? The “decline effect” is something we all turn a blind eye toward in the scientific community. I am a scientist and believe in the scientific method. In fact, I have served as a Program Officer for a federal funding agency, so I do not condemn the scientific method in any way. However, it is important to recognize that science does, in fact, have a political aspect because scientists (and all humans) have biases.

    I’ve read the links and the bill sponsors wanted to avoid a potential problem. That is how effective politics is carried out. There are bigger fish to fry. To insist that science is “right” is a fundamental misunderstanding of science; it is a journey of evolution that may never end. We now know Newton was wrong only because Einstein stood on Newton’s shoulders.

    And let’s not forget about “Global Cooling”….

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article