RESPONDING TO THE THREAT
OF SEA LEVEL RISE
PROCEEDINGS OF A FORUM
Prepared by Steve Olson
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS500 Fifth Street NWWashington, DC 20001
NOTICE: The subject of this publication is the forum titled Responding to the Threat of Sea Level Rise held during the 2016 annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering.
Opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this publication are those of the forum participants and not necessarily the views of the National Academy of Engineering.
Digital Object Identifier: https://doi.org/10.17226/24847
For more information about the National Academy of Engineering, visit the NAE home page at www.nae.edu.
Copyright 2017 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
Suggested citation: National Academy of Engineering. 2017. Responding to the Threat of Sea Level Rise: Proceedings of a Forum. Washington: National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/24847.
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The headquarters building of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the National Mall in Washington, DC, looks across the Vietnam Veterans and Lincoln memorials toward the Potomac River. Some day there may be a berm on the Mall that blocks the view of the Potomac.
As sea level continues to rise, so will the likelihood that the tidal portions of rivers like the Potomac will overflow into the cities through which they pass. Eventually, many of the world’s major cities may look like those in the Netherlands, ringed by dikes, berms, and dams.
Sea level rise was a major topic of the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering on October 9–10, 2016. Adaptation to it was the subject of a plenary lecture, on the first day of the meeting, by Robert J. Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton.
On the second day a forum on the same topic featured Nicholls as well as Bart de Jong, counselor for infrastructure and the environment at the Royal Netherlands Embassy; Bret J. Muilenburg, commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command; David Pearce, department manager of regional engineering for Consolidated Edison; and Kathleen D. White, head of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Climate Preparedness and Resilience Community of Practice. Moderated by global affairs and economics journalist Ali Velshi, the forum was one of the most fascinating and informative held at an NAE annual meeting.
Adaptation to sea level rise was one of several mega-engineering initiatives discussed at the meeting. These initiatives, ranging from space travel to the creation of global communication networks to the exploration of the subatomic world, extend the bounds of human capabilities
and services to society. They not only solve problems of great importance but also define new limits that become technical “records to be broken” in the minds of the public and coming generations of engineers, scientists, and others who are dedicated to advancing our world.
Yet mega-engineering initiatives often are seen as products of science rather than engineering. While new scientific knowledge undoubtedly plays a role in such projects, I am puzzled by the absence of appropriate recognition of the engineering that created them, engineering that is invariably remarkable and unique. Certainly the ability to cope with rising sea levels will hinge on the ingenuity, creativity, and diligence of engineers.
This summary of the forum, which also incorporates material from Nicholls’ plenary presentation, outlines a rich and challenging set of problems for engineers, scientists, and those who work with them. The future rate and extent of sea level rise are highly uncertain, and responses to higher water levels will need to reflect this uncertainty.
Major societal institutions such as the military, utility companies, and city governments are taking measures to cope with sea level rise, and their experiences provide valuable lessons that engineers need to take into account. The measures involve different sectors of society and are often international, requiring high levels of collaboration.
Moreover, the problem will extend over many generations, requiring continuity of approaches and the continual preparation of new talent. Public understanding of both the threat and possible ways to deal with it is prerequisite to effective action.
At the core of the mission of the National Academy of Engineering are problems with just these characteristics. By focusing on topics such as sea level rise, we seek to advance the state of knowledge, public awareness and understanding of that knowledge, and the political will to act on what we know.
C. D. Mote, Jr.
National Academy of Engineering