Sea level rise in Asia

Casinos in Macau, China.
中国澳门的赌场 Photo by Shawn Smallman

I think that we have reached the point with global warming where we can no longer pretend that we’re going to meet our goals. That doesn’t mean that citizens globally can stop the effort to limit climate change. There is a vast difference between the worst scenarios and the best. There are also reasons for hope, from the plunging cost of solar power, to the rapid development of offshore wind power. At the same time, in the end it’s not enough. Given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the changing albedo of the Arctic due to declining ice cover, and the warming of our oceans, global warming will be continuing for centuries. At this point, human societies will be adapting to climate change far into the future, especially coastal communities.

I thought about this summer in Macao, where the bulk of the casinos that drive its economy are located along the water’s edge. Some of the casinos were new, immense, and decadent, and a few were only a stones’ throw from a rising ocean. In back of the immense casinos is a steep hill, where most of Macau’s wonderful old colonial architecture is located at the top, far from any threat from sea level rise.

Colonial architecture, Macau, China. Photo by Shawn Smallman. August 2017

Although many global cities -from Miami to Shanghai- are threatened by sea level rise, in few places is the threat as apparent now as in Jakarta, an urban area that has nearly as many people as Canada. Michael Kimmelman has an outstanding article in the New York TimesJakarta Is Sinking So Fast, It Could End Up Underwater. As the article describes, Jakarta’s challenge is that not only is the ocean rising, but also the city itself is sinking, in part because people are rapidly extracting ground water. The article is well worth reading. One of the take aways from this piece is that the city’s crisis is in reality the culmination of a wide array of environmental crises, such as the loss of mangrove swamps that buffered the city, the paving over of lands that absorbed water into the aquifer, and the garbage accumulation that has clogged the canals that drain waters. The article also shows how diverse interests and political issues can undermine any response to a crisis. In particular, it shows how it is easy to fix on a major infrastructure solution, in part because it is politically simpler than addressing the multiple factors creating a problem. While this case study is in Asia, similar stories will play out globally, which makes this article well worth reading. Jakarta’s issues will be echoed in Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and London.

Curious to learn more about sea level rise in Macau? The following peer-reviewed article will take you deep into the scientific modeling. The most interesting points that the authors make are that sea level rise is taking place more quickly in Macau than the global average due to local factors, that Macau’s ability to adapt is limited by its small geographical area, and that massive land reclamation efforts are making it more vulnerable to sea level rise.

Wang, Huang, Zhou, & Chen. (2016). Historical change and future scenarios of sea level rise in Macau and adjacent waters. Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, 33(4), 462-475.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Ferry in Macau.渡轮在澳门 Photo by Shawn Smallman, summer 2017


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