In 100 Years (Your Campus May Resemble Venice)

Posted on December 4, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Earlier this week, the tides of the Adriatic Sea submerged the Italian city of Venice. The New York Times published an astonishing set of photographs of Venetians and tourists attempting to go about their days, seemingly defiant of the flood. One picture captured tourists thigh-deep in water in Saint Mark’s Square, another showed fashionably-dressed teens strolling down a street and casting a glance at a shopkeeper bailing-out his store, and my favorite featured a group of gondoliers eating their breakfast at an outdoor café table… in several feet of water. As I clicked through these images, I couldn’t help but think that I was not only glimpsing the past (which is unavoidable with Venice) but also the future.

The past and the future of my employer, Rice University, have been on my mind a lot lately. The year 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first entering class at Rice (then known as the Rice Institute). An observer in 1912 would have noted that a tuition-free institution of higher education had opened to serve the white men and women of Houston and the state of Texas. (S)he would likely have wondered – at least privately – about the wisdom of placing this institute beyond the reach of the streetcar, past the end of any paved road, outside the edge of the small but growing city of Houston (population approx. 80,000), upon a mostly treeless and entirely remote muddy campus of prairies and swamps.

That same observer today would find the place utterly unrecognizable. That muddy swamp is now a heavily-wooded thriving university campus, a park-like oasis set within the heart of our nation’s fourth largest city. That white Texan student body is now international, multi-racial, and tuition-paying. That remote location is across the (now paved) street from the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center. Searching for any reminder of 1912, perhaps that observer would remark that at least the nearby streetcar is still there, not knowing that it had be removed around 1940 and only recently rebuilt at great expense. The world can change a lot in a single century.

One change not readily visible but no less important to this discussion is that Rice is now six feet lower in elevation than in 1912.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> When the university was founded, the campus was approximately 56 feet above sea level; now it’s 50 feet (and at 50 miles inland, you get a sense of the flat slopes of the Texas coast). How does that happen? Heavy withdrawals of groundwater across greater Houston caused some areas to subside by as much as 10 feet between 1906 and 2000.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> One suburban neighborhood – the Brownwood subdivision – literally sank into Galveston Bay, and following Hurricane Alicia in 1983 was condemned and converted into a nature preserve.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–> Thankfully, after nearly half a century of inaction despite compelling scientific evidence (sound familiar?), a special regulatory district was formed to prevent further subsidence, and elevations in most of the Houston area have since stabilized.

With the 100th anniversary of Rice rapidly approaching, we are enacting a 10-point plan to shape the next century on our campus, known to the Rice community as the Vision for the Second Century. As I look ahead to these next 100 years of Rice University, I recognize that we will continue to lose elevation, not due to subsidence but to the effects of global climate change. The question is by how much. The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a global sea level rise of between 0.18 and 0.59 meters (7-23 inches) by the end of the century (mostly due to thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[4]<!–[endif]–> However, the wild cards in the deck are the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which were not taken into account in the IPCC’s estimates due to uncertainties of how quickly these sheets would melt.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[5]<!–[endif]–> In other words, the estimate they provide is too conservative. NASA climate scientist James Hansen suggests that a more appropriate estimate is several meters under a business-as-usual scenario.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[6]<!–[endif]–> The lab of Dr. Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona reports that “Our work… suggests that the Earth will be warm enough to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet in less than 150 years. Unless, that is, efforts are made to slow global warming.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[7]<!–[endif]–> Such an event would result in a sea-level rise of 23 feet.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[8]<!–[endif]–> As for the West Antarctic ice sheet, researchers at the British Antarctic Survey estimate such a melting would produce at least a 16 foot rise in sea levels.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[9]<!–[endif]–>

The Overpeck lab has created a viewer that uses a map with a 1-km resolution that shows the effect of sea level increases between 1 and 6 meters at increments of 1 meter. If you’re a map geek like me, you’ll love this tool. Using their viewer, you’ll quickly see how vulnerable certain areas of our country (and world) are to even slight increases in elevation, such as south Florida and most of southern Louisiana below Interstate 10.

Let’s suppose that sea levels rise by 3 meters by the end of the century (about 10 feet). For those of us on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, I will note for reference that the storm surge for the recent Hurricane Ike peaked at 17.48 feet, and with waves on top of the storm surge, the maximum high water mark was 21.2 feet.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[10]<!–[endif]–> A 3-meter rise brings Rice’s elevation down to 40 feet above sea level. While that news is not good for Rice, a 3-meter increase in sea level is positively alarming for a number of other universities. For example, the University of Miami would be at sea level, and its medical school 7 feet below sea level. Lamar University in southeast Texas would be 3 feet under water, as would The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas – the state’s oldest medical school – would be at sea level. Ditto for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, would take on water when tides reach 3 feet above normal.

If we assume a scenario of a 6-meter rise in sea level (about 20 feet), Rice drops to 30 feet in elevation, just past the reach of the storm surge. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts would sit right at sea level. LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a city that may become the post-Katrina economic engine of Louisiana, would be just 19 feet above sea level, within striking range of a significant storm surge, and much closer to the coastline. And what about if both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse over the next century or two? These losses, combined with thermal expansion of ocean waters due to warming, could result in a sea level rise of about 41 feet (23 feet + 16 feet + 23 inches). This would place the Rice campus at less than 10 feet above sea level, easily within the storm surge of a hurricane. In that case, our Vision for the Third Century had better include a seawall.

The idea that many of our campuses might someday resemble the images from Venice is shocking. However, it is certainly well within the realm of possibility. In a century or two, those wading tourists in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square could instead be in Harvard Square, those fashionable teens strolling thigh-deep in water past a flooded store could be midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis dressed in their white uniforms filing through the tide of the Chesapeake Bay past the Nimitz Library, and those dining gondoliers with seawater just below their tablecloth could instead be University of Miami students sipping a Starbuck’s in the surf outside the University Center (near the ironically named Storm Surge Café).

We know that the world can change rapidly in a single century, especially this coming century. We know that a host of external environmental factors will shape the future of our campuses at a level never seen before. As campus sustainability professionals, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. If we fail, our future might be Venice, a beautiful curiosity losing a long battle with the sea, and we can’t let that be so.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[4]<!–[endif]–> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis – Summary for Policy Makers, p. 13,, accessed November 29, 2008.

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