Monday, September 26, 2011

Is a Floating "Wetropolis" the Answer for Rising Sea Levels?

You know things have gotten dead serious with respect to climate change when major world leaders are no longer talking about cutting emissions and instead talking about "geoengineering" or even simply throwing in the towel and evacuating their nations en-masse from rising sea levels.

Let's start with the first of our doomsday scenarios. Geoengineering is an emerging scientific field that aims to use frighteningly large-scale engineering projects to counter the effects of climate change. Part of the concession the field of geoengineering is making by default is that limiting our carbon emissions - or even eliminating them altogether and becoming carbon-neutral - is not enough to stop the most devastating impacts of climate such as:

  • Global average temperature increase of between 1.8 and 4 degrees C (4-9 degrees F)
  • Sea level rise of up to 1.5 feet by 2100
  • More frequent severe storms (cough:Katrina:cough)
  • Longer and more intense heat waves and droughts (Texas, are you listening?)
  • More sporadic rainfall overall

All of these effects are now generally accepted among the scientific community as likely to occur if they are not already occurring. The very fact that we are talking about a "tropical Germany", submerged skyscrapers in New York City, and hundreds of summer heat-related deaths in Seattle by 2050 is evidence that climate change is spinning out of control faster than our ability to respond.

At least for now, the field of geoengineering is has little funding and is not understood to be a viable solution to the climate change mess. Proposals such as ocean iron fertilization to boost phytoplankton growth and soak up ocean carbon sound effective, but there is no way of knowing currently whether it is cost-effective. How much carbon would you have to displace to be able to justify the expense? Other ideas, such as space mirrors or cloud reflectivity enhancement are no more effective and could produce nasty unintended side effects. 

Ocean iron fertilization off the coast of Argentina

So clearly how we build our cities' infrastructure must drastically change even as we cut emissions well into the future. Here are some of the more outlandish ideas on the table for retrofitting our coastal cities to deal with rising sea levels and climate change: 

In San Francisco, Iwamoto Scott Architecture imagines so-called "fog flowers" that would be installed on Twin Peaks and other major hilltops to collect the condensation from incoming fog belts. This method of water collection would be very important, as water resources are expected to be very strained in the coming years.

Farther downhill, high-rise residential towers double as algae farms for biodiesel production.

"Fog Flowers" covering Ocean Beach in the Outer Sunset

Images courtesy of Inhabitat

Another alternative comes from the increasingly water-logged city of Bangkok. Already home to 12 million people in a marshy river delta that will face more flooding with rising sea levels, a plan from the designers S+PBA aims to embrace flooding as a constant resource in a more resilient "wetropolis".

The vegetation basis for the Wetropolis is a forest of indigenous mangroves, which the government is already trying to implement in Bangkok. The mangroves naturally filter water, and they also supply fresh oxygen and natural cooling. As the water is filtered, shrimp farming can flourish in a sustainable manner. The community will live above the water fields in a network of interconnected homes, walkways, and roads, with curvaceous lines that emulate the rippling water below.

Dubbed "A Post Diluvian Future", the "wetropolis" suspended above mangroves would allow Bangkok to live sustainably with natural flooding as a constant, rather than something to resist. The plan would also help detoxify the city's polluted water supply, a major protection against the more frequent droughts tropical climates are likely to face.

Now let's say you are a tiny, impoverished South Pacific island nation without the money for geo-engineering or fancy design remodels like these. What do you do then?

According to a recent story in The Guardian, the president 100,000 person nation of Kiribati, Anote Tong, recently announced that he had been looking at plans to evacuate the island chain onto structures resembling gigantic floating lilypads:

"The last time I saw the models, I was like 'wow it's like science fiction, almost like something in space. So modern, I don't know if our people could live on it. But what would you do for your grandchildren? If you're faced with the option of being submerged, with your family, would you jump on an oil rig like that? And [I] think the answer is 'yes'. We are running out of options, so we are considering all of them."

Whoa...can you imagine President Obama getting up on his podium and telling the citizens of New York or San Francisco, "you know, we really tried to do something about this global warming business, but you wouldn't listen, so we have no choice. All aboard the floating lilypad, everybody" ? Insanity would quickly ensue. The fact that the Kiribati president has made such statements and is still alive and still president is testament to how imperiled these and other island nations like the Maldives, Seychelles, and Tuvalu really are.

The structures are the brainchild of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut. This "ecopolis" would not only be able to produce its own energy through solar, wind, tidal and biomass but would also process CO2 in the atmosphere and absorb it into its titanium dioxide skin.

The nation of Kiribati, just south of Hawaii, faces a bill of $900 million to shore up its infrastructure in the face of rising sea level projections for 2050. With most of the islands less than two meters above sea level and only a population of 100,000 how exactly are they supposed to pay for that?

Solutions like Callebaut's lilypad may look ridiculous and farfetched, but they are grounded in a tradition of artificial islands. For centuries, people have lived on floating islands of reedgrass in Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Floating villages of Lake Titicaca...yes, that really is the name of the lake :)

The sad truth is that unless we really start getting our act together on climate change, we too may have to look at these pretty fucking outlandish floating scenarios with a more serious eye.

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