How High’s the Water, Mama?

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How high’s the water, Mama?
Five feet high and risin’.
How high’s the water, Papa?
She said it’s five feet high and risin’.
Well, the rails are washed out north of town.
We gotta head for higher ground.
We can’t come back till the water goes down,
Five feet high and risin’

~ Johnny Cash, Five Feet High and Rising

The place we vacation on the Oregon coast overlooks the beach and we watch the waves breaking and the kids playing in the waves. At low tide, beachcombers wander looking for shells and interesting debris, but find, mostly, trash and disposable water bottles mixed in with kelp and dead sea creatures — usually after the sea gulls got to them.

In the years following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, parts of Japanese boats, products and all kinds of exotic junk was reported to have washed up on Pacific coast beaches, but we never found any. According to NOAA, seventy percent of an estimated 5 million tons of debris sank near the coast of Japan, according to the Ministry of Environment. The rest, approximately 1.5 million tons, presumably floated out into the Pacific.

First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore,
Then rolls out to sea and the sea is very still once more.

~ The Platters, Ebb Tide

It’s not just a problem with tsunamis, but with any flooding. Research has shown that up to 95% of the plastics in the oceans is from just ten river systems. When it rains, it pours off the lands and floods into the streams, rivers and oceans. Direct discharges also send plastics into the oceans. Julissa Treviño recently reported in The Atlantic on ‘nurdles’, plastic bits that form the building blocks for many products. These may be discharged from industrial facilities or through spills in transit. They ultimately reach the oceans where they can litter beaches and degrade into microplastics.

YaleEnvironment360’s writer, Jim Morrison reports that maybe the biggest problem isn’t from the actual flood debris, but from the contamination that receding waters carry with them. In Japan, the tsunami breached sea walls and flooded airports, refineries, all kinds of industrial facilities, landfills and sewage works, as well as residential and commercial properties. Flooded automobile factories showed acres of vehicles partially submerged. Just imagine how much oil, chemical, and biological pollution was carried back into the ocean. That’s not to say that the debris themselves didn’t also contribute to ocean pollution as they degraded over time.

According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “high-tide flooding frequency along the southeastern coast of the United States rose 160 percent from 2000 to 2017. And with sea levels expected to rise another 3 to 6 feet by 2100 because of melting ice sheets and glaciers, scientists warn that much worse is to come. NOAA projects that as many as 85 days of high-tide flooding will occur annually along the southeastern U.S. coast by 2050.”

Rising oceans are the result of climate change whether human-caused or not. Rising oceans will increase flooding that isn’t just a problem for local residents and businesses, but contributes to increased pollution of our shorelines and oceans.

“With global sea levels steadily rising — already up 8 inches in the past century and now increasing at an average of 1.3 inches per decade — the incidence of high-tide “sunny day” or “blue sky” flooding is on the rise, especially along the U.S. East Coast. Those flooding events now routinely wash over sections of cities, and when the waters recede they take with them an excess of nutrients and a toxic mix of pollutants that flows into rivers, bays, and oceans.”

Morrison quotes Margaret Mulholland, “When we think of sea level rise, we think of what is at risk on the land side, where we live and have to get around,” she says. “[But] anything left on the land here is going back in the water. Anything. It’s gravity.”

We need to understand that environmental pollution from point sources or runoff isn’t just contamination of one spot or one system, but has broader effects. One approach would be to target specific locations with high nutrient loads for mitigation through living shorelines or buffers that use vegetation to help trap sediment and filter water flowing back into rivers and bays. “Blue skies” aren’t always good.

The whole planet, our Earth, is a system; and climate change effects the entire system. The Japanese sea walls were not effective against the Tohoku tsunami, and it is unlikely that we can protect against every catastrophe. However, we can try to understand the system and address those attributes where preventive measures can mitigate some of the damage. Stopping pollution is a pretty good start.

Yes, I swam dirty waters
But you pushed me in

~ Adele, I’ll Be Waiting

Additional Information:
Melissa Breyer, These 10 Rivers Likely the Source of Millions of Tons of Ocean Plastic, November 6, 2017, TreeHugger Daily News

Jim Morrison , As High-Tide Flooding Worsens, More Pollution Is Washing to the Sea, March 14, 2019, YaleEnvironment360

RT, HomeUSA News, 1 million tons of Fukushima debris floating near US West Coast?, November 5, 2013

Julissa Treviño, The Lost Nurdles Polluting Texas Beaches, Jul 5, 2019, The Atlantic

U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Sightings, NOAA Marine Debris Program, Revised July 11, 2019

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