Three seemingly unrelated events occurred in April 2014.
The IPCC, the international body of scientists tasked with monitoring climate change, released its fifth report, assessing that, between today and 2100, climate change could induce a rise of one metre of the sea level, and the radical necessity to start adaptation policies (IPCC, fifth report, 2014).
Meanwhile, in Dubai, the immense beach, which has become the support for a gigantic tourist and real estate industry, welcomed the first open water swimming championships on 18 and 19 April 2014 (1st Dubai International Open Water Swimming Championships).
While this sportive event was taking place, a gigantic iceberg, six times the size of Manhattan, was breaking off from an Antarctic glacier into the open ocean (Will Dunham, “Massive icebergs six times the size of Manhattan breaks off Antarctica”, The Huffington Post, 04/23/2014).
If a touristic and sport development of the Dubai beach, a scientific report on climate change and the destabilization of the Antarctic ice shelf appear to be perfectly isolated from each other, they are, in fact, intimately related. They reveal the emergence of a gigantic planetary crisis (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules, (part 1)“, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 25, 2016).
The links between these three events are made clear by several scientific studies about the dramatic global consequences of the current warming of the ice caps, especially of the glaciers of Greenland and of the Antarctic, during the 21st century, and how this melting process is reinforcing the current acceleration of the rise of the sea level (Robert de Conto and Robert Pollard, “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea level rise“, Nature, 31 March 2016, Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
In the abstract of another recent study, the authors write:
“The Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica has most likely been destabilized… Our results show that if the Amundsen Sea sector is destabilized, then the entire marine ice sheet will discharge into the ocean, causing a global sea-level rise of about 3 m. We thus might be witnessing the beginning of a period of self-sustained ice discharge from West Antarctica that requires long-term global adaptation of coastal protection.” (Johannes Feldmann and Anders Levermann, “Collapse of the west Antarctic Ice sheet after local destabilization of the Amundsen Basin”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 6, 2015).
Thus, it appears that the Antarctic ice shelf is transforming itself into a water source of planetary scale.
This means that these studies warn the world that the projected sea level rise could be much more important than what is predicted by the IPCC and that the impact of the rise of sea level will be much more important and violent than what was previously established. It also means that the measures of adaptation will necessitate mobilising more resources and political will, and will have to be drastic.
In other words, the destabilization of the Antarctic is one of the main drivers of the coming political, strategic and economic transformation. It is going to transform the world strategic, economic and social landscape, through a profound destabilization of the interactions between the development of modern societies and the littoral and the sea. It is necessary to understand this new reality, should one be able to react in an adapted and efficient way (John Upton, “Fate of World’s Coastlines Rests on Melting Antarctic Ice”, Climate Central, April 21, 2016).
To understand this new necessity, we shall look at the causes and consequences of the Antarctic’s melting. Then, we shall see how the Antarctic’s and climate change’s upheavals are laying siege to humankind in a new way.
Finally, Dubai will provide us with a quasi ideal-type example for understanding the coming transformation of the world, as there, the paroxystic modernity of a city-emirate will meet the paroxystic crisis of the rise of sea level.
Antarctica, a planetary water power
On 7 April 2016, two new “monster” icebergs calved from the Nansen ice shelf, one 10 km long and the other 20 km long, and both of them 5 km wide.
According to climatologist Luke D. Trusel, this rapid destabilization of Antarctic ice shelves are another signal of the way Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves are affected by climate change (Press Association, “Antarctic ice is melting so fast that the whole continent may be at risk by 2100”, The Guardian, 12 October 2015).
However, contrary to what happens in the Arctic, the Antarctic is heated not by the atmosphere, but by the ocean (Luke D. Trusel, Karen E. Frey, “Divergent trajectories of Antarctic surface melt under two twenty-first climate scenarios”, Nature Geoscience, 12 October 2015).
In effect, circumpolar winds are rotating around the frozen continent, and isolate it from the Southern Pacific and Southern Atlantic weather system. Meanwhile, warmer water is carried in the Antarctic Ocean by underwater currents coming from the Tropics. This creates a layer of warm underwater, which rotates around the Antarctic ice shelves, and is mixed with different currents of the rotating ocean created by the circumpolar winds. As a result, warmer water is projected against the underwater part of the ice shelves grounded on the seabed, which spill over from the continental glacier (Dahr Jamail, “Antarctica on the brink: NASA emeritus scientist warns of dramatic loss of glaciers”, Truth Out, 14 March 2016).
These warmer currents quickly melt the submerged ice. The ice shelves are thus destabilised: they break and fall in the ocean, where they further melt. By doing so, they add a net quantity of water to the ocean, which feeds the global rise of the oceans.
As shown by scientists such as James Hansen, it appears that the warming of the Antarctic glacier and ice shelves could add, to the very least, more than one meter to the current process of sea rise already due to climate change during the 21st century. Furthermore, the warming and melting of other land ice shelves, in particular Greenland, has to be added to this trend.
Thus, the rise of the sea level could reach not one but two to five meters between now and 2100 (Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
In other terms, the rise of the sea level is already constantly and powerfully assaulting the littoral of the five continents, and this attack will continually grow in violence during the years and decades to come.
Humankind under ocean siege
According to the UN, more than 60% of the global population, which means 4.2 billions people, live within sixty kilometres of the coastline, where the land and sea very complex systems of interaction start (John Upton, ibid). Even if there is a great geographic diversity of littoral, from Bangladesh, which lies entirely at the level of the sea and, for some parts, below the sea level, to the British White Cliffs of Dover, the global littoral space plays a major role in the development of land life and of human societies.
In effect, large swaths of littoral on the different continents are heavily urbanised and agriculturally and industrially developed. Ports, be they civil or military, are fundamental infrastructures (Brad Plumer, “This is an incredible visualization of the world shipping routes“, Vox energy and Environment, April 25, 2016). They support the fishing industry, which feeds 500 million people, out of 7 billion (“Fisheries and aquaculture in our changing climate”, Policy brief of the FAO for the UNFCCC COP 15, 2009), as well as maritime transportation upon which depends the global economy, as shown on the map below (data for 2012, map by Kiln).
This turns the littoral into zones of vulnerabilities, knowing that these vulnerabilities are spreading far into the hinterland. These fragilities are already felt and identified by numerous actors, in many different contexts.
It is the case, for example, for Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, with a huge population of 150 million people. Bangladesh’s mainland is at sea level with some areas located even slightly under this level.
This geography makes Bangladesh’s population, already more than vulnerable because of dire poverty, extremely exposed to the multiplication and intensification of storms, which regularly overwhelm very large swathes of the country. As a result, millions of people become “inner climate refugees”, intensifying the rural exodus and crowding cities, where they are exposed to new forms of social and economic violence, and, often, to political and religious radicalization (Gardiner Harris, “Borrowed time on disappearing land: facing rising seas, Bangladesh confronts the consequences of climate change”, The New York Times, March 28, 2014).
Meanwhile, over the last ten years, India has built a huge and fortified wall, made of barbed wire, four meters tall, and four thousand kilometres long, highly militarised along its border with Bangladesh. If the official reason for the building of this wall is “the prevention of terrorist infiltrations”, it is very likely that this wall would become a strategic control infrastructure in case India would need to prevent – or try to – large migratory flux (Jean-Michel Valantin “Is climate change a geostrategic issue? Yes!”, The Red Team Analysis Society, October 14, 2013).
In a radically different situation, in the U.S., the rapid rise of the ocean raises concern among the U.S. Navy military authorities, because of the impact of this process on the security of the harbours and littoral infrastructures, for example in North Carolina (Leigh Phillips, North Carolina Seal level rises despite U.S Senators, Scientific American, June 27, 2012 and Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014).
This planetary process may also have dangerous consequences for a country such as Israel, as we saw in “Israel and the coming long threat”: the rise of the sea is going to mean the endangerment of the space where 70% of population live, without much strategic depth and in a difficult regional geopolitical context (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Israel and the Coming Long Threat”, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 11, 2016).
Finding answers to the Anthropocene challenge
This immense and threatening process needs to be addressed, in order to be managed and, as much as possible, absorbed by societies, governments and economies all around the world. However, in order to succeed, it is important the different political and economic authorities, not only at state but also corporate level, develop a deep understanding of this process.
This can be quite challenging, because of the radical cognitive shift that is required to think the new human-planetary situation. In effect, the combination of industry, carbon energy, agriculture, urbanization, demographics and economic growth is altering the fundamental geophysical and biological conditions on Earth.
Many scientists qualify this planetary transformation as being the signal of a new geological era: the Anthropocene, so-called because of the new status of humankind, which has become the prevalent geological force on the planet (Jan Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?, 2011).
However, paradoxically, this means that the very life conditions out of which the human species emerged and developed the political, social and economic conditions necessary for human survival are now being rapidly modified. And these conditions will keep on, and on changing during the decades and the centuries to come (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules (1)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, January 25, 2016).
Antarctica’s melting and the continuous rise of the sea level is a powerful signal of the Anthropocene. This raises a fundamental strategic question: what has to be done to adapt, by whom, along which timeline? In fact, this massive planetary change has already started. Its effects will evolve and become more intense and complex with the years to come.
To understand what is at stake, let us use Dubai and its beach as a case study. Dubai is a member of the United Arab Emirates, in the Persian Gulf. A small oil and gas producer, it has become one of the most important place of real estate development in the world: it hosts many Middle Eastern headquarters of the most important IT and media firms in the world, and has been transformed into a futuristic city, located in the desert along the sea (“Dubai”, Wikipedia).
At a political and symbolic level, Dubai has become a world-famous extreme form of development of the Arab world.
As a result, the beach of Dubai has become one of its main strategic assets, as a tourist industry attractor. The beach is in fact a part of the desert in front of the sea, and is an important support for the value of the whole stretch of coastline developed through the building of high-level five stars hotels (Rahul Odedra, “Jumeirah plans major beach development in Dubai”, Hotelier Middle East.com, August 12, 2014).
This transformation is even extended by the extremely luxurious “palm project”, made of sand islands, hosting houses for ultra-rich clients, and enveloped in a sand and concrete giant palm form coming from the beach (Nadine Deninno, “Palm Islands of Dubai are World?” International Business Times, 06/06/12). In this context, the Dubai beach is a fundamental support for the real estate development in Dubai.
Yet, this singular achievement is doubly threatened by the Antarctic melting. Three factors indeed combine to create the danger. First, Dubai lies at the current level of the sea. Second, the sea level rises, which is dangerous for the beach and for the whole country, and, thus for the overall economic, political and symbolic development and status of Dubai (Susan Kreamer, “All of Dubai underwater?”, Clean Technica, January 16, 2010).
Third, we are challenged by the current uncertainty regarding the contribution – in meters – of the Antarctic’s melting to the rise of the sea level during the 85 coming years. The climatologists and glaciologists are working to establish what this contribution will add to the one meter established by the IPCC (Chris Mooney, “Greenland and Antarctica isn’t just raising seas- it’s changing the Earth’s rotation”, The Washington Post, April 8, 2016).
Furthermore, the question of the rhythm of the rise is raised: will it be a linear process or will it take place through accelerating sequences? Asking these questions is vital for the Dubai political and economic authorities, because the rising sea level is directly threatening not only the beach, but also the whole Emirate, as well as the whole region.
This means that the adaptation of Dubai will have to be planned according to the different sequences of the current and coming sea level rise.
First and foremost, the political and economic authorities of the Emirate will have to assess the vulnerability of the beach, and how to maintain its use as long as possible, while continuing to be attractive from a touristic and real estate point of view. The progressive, but possibly rapid, submersion of the beach, will have to be managed in order to renew the attractiveness and the prestige of Dubai.
This political, economic, infrastructural and ecological anticipatory analysis will have to be done alongside strategic planning for the adaptation of the city and of the desert to the invasive presence of the sea. Among other vital features, the renewal of water and transport infrastructures will have to be prepared.
The efforts and resources needed to adapt to this change will not be the same as when it was thought that the sea level would rise by one meter and a mistaken evaluation will have dire consequences for the Emirate.
In other terms, the Emirate’s authorities will have to integrate the Anthropocene into their political thinking. However, only a few strategic actors, chiefly among them The Red (Team) Analysis Society, have developed methods to adapt current to understand and anticipate the political and economic adaptation methodologies adapted to a future dominated by the Anthropocene.
The ongoing interaction between Dubai and the rise of the sea level, reinforced by the Antarctic melting, is a case study in the way the current planetary global changes are going to impact specific localised developed littoral territory.
This leads us to ponder what is going to happen on a much larger scale, to start with in the other Arab United Emirates and the whole Persian Gulf (Silvia Radan, “Strategic planning will have to focus on climate change”, Khaleej Times, 16 January 2016).
The same question will have to be asked about Florida, and, among many others cases, about the South African Cape, Canadian Vancouver, Dutch Rotterdam and Hong Kong as well as about the overpopulated littorals of South China, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, without forgetting Europe. We must find a way to face the need to adapt to an ever-changing situation; a challenge that is now upon us.
The Antarctic is melting.
That is what The Red (Team) Analysis Society is for.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Dubai Sunset from Burj Khalifa, By Simon Bierwald from Dortmund, Germany (Dubai Sunset from Burj Khalifa) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons