Of King Canute And The Supermoon

11/23/2016 08:11 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

How a brilliant real estate developer can halt the incoming tides.

King Canute couldn’t stop the tides. Trump can.
R. E. Pine. The People’s Gallery of Engravings, 1848
King Canute couldn’t stop the tides. Trump can.

The story is that in the Middle Ages, Canute the Great, King of the North Sea Empire, famously commanded the rising tide to stay back, and sat on the ocean’s shore as the waves stubbornly roared in. The pop culture rendering of Canute’s tale has been used to point out the futility of facing off against the unyielding power of nature. No person can stop the tides.

Today, a new U.S. administration may be close to the same kind of hubris, but this time about climate change. President-elect Trump and many of his cabinet candidates seem to be very close to saying “I refuse to believe in you, so stay away.” Of course, that attitude will not make climate change stay away.

King Canute couldn’t control the moon, and so was unable to stop the tide. Likewise, sea level rise from global warming is not under human control. That is because the sea level rise itself is partly due to the unfortunate chemical and physical properties of water – it expands a little when it warms. That expansion is very small in every gallon of seawater, but along with other sources of sea level rise, such as increases in sea ice melting, it adds up to about 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) every decade, or 2 feet every century.

This doesn’t seem like much, but before a huge sigh of relief rises up from Washington, here is why an extra 2 feet of sea level in the next century is bad for buildings, for our many big coastal cities, and for the nation’s economic growth: King Tides and Super moons.

The Trump International Hotel and Tower in Waikiki is about 4 feet above sea level – but when tides are high and storm waves come crashing over the reef, there is already seawater gushing from storm drains in that part of Waikiki. Add a two feet more water and two things pile up – more waves come over the protective reef, and higher sea levels push more water out into the streets. Already, many people around the U.S. – top, top people – report seeing just this kind of inundation. And the term King Tides, where high tides and waves combine to overtop normal coastal protection, have hit the news more and more in the past decade.

Just last week, the close approach of the moon to Earth brought tide levels up more than usual. Reports from Miami show widespread ocean flooding, an octopus in a parking garage and perhaps sewage backing up into the king tide waters. King tide floods were also reported widely across the eastern seaboard. How much higher were these king tides than usual? Some comparisons in Connecticut show king tides are 6 inches higher – about the amount of sea level rise we expect by the year 2065. So, by 2065 all tides will be King Tides and the King Tides of that future era will be serious floods. These estimates do not include other likely events such as the impact of increased storms, high sea level rise from polar ice sheets, increased greenhouse gasses entering the air, or acidity in the water killing the reefs that grow natural seawalls.

In coastal Florida alone, President-Elect Trump owns or licenses his name on Trump Grande, Trump Towers, Trump National Doral, Mar-a-Lago, and Trump Hollywood. None are above 6 feet from current sea level. What should a brilliant real-estate developer like Trump do? If he were only responsible for these buildings, he would probably run up the value of each property by managing his brand and sell them before the next Supermoon King Tides in 2034. But what about if the same brilliant developer was the property manager for the entire United States? Liquidating the future of coastal communities around America simply won’t do.

192 nations have said they want to help us – and themselves. They have signed on to the Paris Agreement expressing their willingness to curtail their CO2 emissions. Many have committed even though by and large they did not create the current problems. This is help that the U.S. could hardy hope to buy on any market. But more than that, they are willing customers for current and future climate-easing technologies that might well come from the United States. The brilliant developer will use these other countries’ help in solving the global problem while at the same time saving his buildings and providing a lucrative market for an outbreak technology that will buoy up the U.S. economy the way fossil fuels did in the 20th century.

King Canute would be jealous of President-elect Trump. Canute couldn’t stop the rise of the tides. President-elect Trump can. The Trump administration’s decisions about U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement will play a pivotal role in determining how fast our world will warm – and how fast our seas rise. The future of much of coastal America will be determined by whether Trump is clever enough to use the power that Canute never had.

CONVERSATIONS