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Can these giant dams keep Europe from drowning?
Why a 400-mile enclosure around the North Sea is not as crazy as it sounds
- The Northern European Enclosure Dam (NEED) would cut off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean.
- It would save 15 countries, and up to 55 million people, from sea level rise—but at a cost.
- The idea is a warning more than a plan: NEED will be necessary if we don't stop global warming now.
The top of a 4.5-m (15-ft) statue, some rooftops and a church spire are all that remains above water in Wieringerwerf, near Amsterdam, during the Wieringermeer flood of 1945.
Image: Nationaal Archief / Willem van de Poll / Anefo – CC0 1.0
Climate change is real, and it's bad. It's also gradual and impersonal. That's why it's both tempting and easy to stick your head in the sand. Do that long enough, though, and you're likely to drown, as sea level rise (SLR) catches up with you.
Here's something that might shock you into action: A plan for a giant dam to protect 15 European countries from those rising seas. The project's scale is unprecedented. Its cost phenomenal. But it's still cheaper than all the alternatives—including doing nothing. All the alternatives except one: Taking action now against climate change.
Here's how the situation looks today:
- Current global mean temperature is about 1°C (1.8°F) above pre-industrial levels.
- Rising temperatures cause rising sea levels, albeit with a lag. Global mean SLR is 18 cm (7 in) since 1880 and it's accelerating.
- Current policies imply a further global warming of up to 3.1 °C (5.6°F) by 2100, so it's virtually certain SLR will continue well beyond that date.
- The rule of thumb: For every extra °C, expect an SLR of 2.3 m (7.5 ft). Because of the lagging effect, SLR by 2100 would be 'only' 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft). But by 2500, it could be as high as 10 m (32.8 ft).
51 billion tons of sand
Total length: Almost 400 miles. Total cost: Up to $600 billion. PInk dots: Areas with high population density.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson
The logistics of their proposal are dizzying:
- NEED would consist of two major sections: NEED-South, a dam connecting France's Breton coast (near Brest) with England's south-west coast. It would measure 161 km (100 mi) in length, with an average depth of 85 m (279 ft) and a maximum depth of 102 m (335 ft).
- NEED-North would consist of several parts, linking the Scottish mainland to the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and from there to Norway. Its total length would be 476 km (296 mi), with an average depth of 127 m (417 ft) and a maximum depth of 321 m (1,053 ft) in the Norwegian Trench.
- NEED would have a combined length of 637 km (396 mi).
- NEED would have a combined volume of 36.2 km3 (8.7 mi3), which would require 51 billion tons of sand. That is equal to one year's worth of global sand use.
- Total price for NEED: Somewhere between €250-€550 billion ($270-$600 bn).
- NEED would protect coastal communities in 15 countries, keeping the feet dry of 25 million to 55 million people; depending on SLR of between 2 to 15 m (6.6 to 49.2 ft), respectively.
What would happen to the Netherlands if the sea level rose by 1.8 m (6 ft): The blue area would flood.
Image: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
So, how do those alternatives pan out, exactly?
Since so much of most countries' population and economies is located at or near the coast, the cost of doing nothing is extreme: Up to 10 times as high as the main alternatives, protection and retreat. Being scientists rather than politicians, Groeskamp and Kjellsson only considered the latter two.
- Managed retreat is a feasible option and is indeed being implemented in the Netherlands, for example, on a small scale. But large-scale retreat for SLR would involve forced migration of large numbers of people, widespread psychological trauma, massive loss of cultural heritage, and political instability at an international level.
- The combined cost of protection on a per-country basis would soon dwarf the cost of NEED. Again, the Dutch example. In a scenario of 1.5 m (4.9 ft) SLR by 2100, the Netherlands would need to spend up to €140 billion ($152 bn) on sea defenses. That alone amounts to about one-third of the total cost of NEED.
- Spread out over 20 years, its cost would amount to at most 0.16% of the combined GDP of the 15 countries involved.
- Even if the cost were borne by the five local countries most likely affected by SLR (the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany), it would still only amount to 0.32% of their combined GDP, tops.
Some other parts of the world where solutions similar to NEED could help safeguard coastal areas from sea level rise.
Image: Groeskamp & Kjellsson
They are not presenting NEED as a panacea, however. Blocking off the North and Baltic Seas from the Atlantic Ocean will have far-reaching, and potentially serious consequences for the region's ecosystems, economies and societies.
- Rivers will continue to discharge into the enclosed seas, and this alone will lead to an annual SLR of 0.9 m (3 ft). Around 100 major pumping stations would be needed to transfer that volume to the ocean.
- The continued discharge would also lead to a freshening of the basin, with salinity projected to reduce by a factor 10 over the course of a century. This would greatly affect biodiversity and fishing.
- The damming of the North Sea would produce important changes in the tidal amplitudes, on both sides of NEED. Inside, it would be greatly reduced. Outside, it would increase by up to 0.7 m (2.3 ft) along the coasts of Wales and southwest England. This would have a major effect on the circulation of sediment, nutrients and small marine life in the area.
- NEED would lock Europe's four busiest ports—Rotterdam, Antwerp, Bremerhaven, Hamburg—behind a huge dam. New harbors would need to be built on the exterior of the dams, and/or sluices to accommodate the volume of traffic to the interior ports.
'NEED – The Northern European Enclosure Dam for if climate change mitigation fails' by Sjoerd Groeskamp and Joakim Kjellsson, was published in the January 2020 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Read it in full here. Image of Wieringermeer flood found here on Wikimedia Commons. Map of Netherlands flooding found here at Oog TV.
Strange Maps #1012
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- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
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UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.