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Changing Climate Changes World

Severe Coastal Flooding Likely Due to Global Warming

UMass Lowell Image
Super typhoon Haiyan takes direct aim at the Philippines, at left, in this NASA image taken on Nov. 7.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Despite some scientists and political leaders blaming storms like Nov. 7's super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines on global warming, Assoc. Prof. Mathew Barlow of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences isn’t so sure about the connection.

“Most climate scientists, including myself, don’t like to try to link single events to the overall warming trend,” says Barlow.

He says one thing that is clear, though, is that rising sea levels from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, coupled with storm surges, will severely increase the flooding impacts in low-lying islands and cities.

According to a report recently released by the Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Stockholm, Sweden — of which Barlow is a contributing author — the rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia. “Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 meter,” the report states.

“We are quite confident that sea-level rise will continue and probably accelerate, so from that perspective it is unambiguously a severe global warming problem,” says Barlow.

“Our coastal communities, infrastructure and ecosystems are becoming increasingly vulnerable under a changing climate,” says biology Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI). “It raises difficult questions about where it makes sense to rebuild or consider retreat from vulnerable areas, and how we can rebuild in ways that mitigate climate change and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”

She adds: “Ultimately, the key to avoiding the most damaging impacts of extreme weather and sea-level rise is to transition our economy away from coal, oil and natural gas that are the root cause of the impacts we are beginning to witness.”

Real Choices for a Changing Planet

“As part of the national effort to raise awareness on college campuses regarding climate change, I am honored that UMass Lowell is taking a leadership role in this area,” Chancellor Marty Meehan said at this year’s Climate Change Teach-In, which was co-sponsored by the CCI and the UMass Lowell Climate Action Plan.

“We understand that the task of addressing climate change is both vast and urgent,” Meehan told the packed audience in Cumnock Hall auditorium. “Climate change affects us all, it is global, and it demands that we be proactive, rather than only reactive. Our mission is to educate and inspire the next generation of thinkers and doers and to give our students and future leaders the tools needed to lead in life, work, and in the world.”

The annual campuswide Teach-In, which was free and open to the public, featured leading climate-change experts who discussed the choices that need to be made today in order to avert climate change’s potential consequences. This year’s speakers included Jennifer Francis, co-founder of Rutgers University’s Climate and Environmental Change Initiative; Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive, which works with governments, businesses and nonprofit agencies around the world to address climate-change issues; and writer and activist Wen Stephenson, who helped launch the grassroots climate-change action network 350 Massachusetts. The event also showcased short films and research posters by UMass Lowell students as well as displays by local communities.

If you missed the Teach-In, you can watch the entire program. To see photos of the event, go to the University’s Photo Gallery.

A Campuswide Commitment

In his keynote address, Meehan highlighted the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a publicly stated pledge that he signed along with the leaders of 674 other American colleges and universities, to take UMass Lowell to zero emissions of heat-trapping pollutants by 2050.

“We fully understand that taking our own institutions’ emissions to zero is not where the full impact of our Climate Action Plan will be realized, but rather that it is in using this process as a laboratory for innovation, research, education, and outreach so that other institutions, communities, and decision-makers can learn from our leadership and experience,” said Meehan.

He added: “Campus events like the Climate Change Teach-In are an integral component of our commitment as they offer an opportunity to learn from leading experts, to engage our students and our community in this work, and to inspire real-world innovation in order to create a better campus, a better Commonwealth, a better world and a better future.”