Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rising tides

Most people across the pond probably haven't noticed but Western Europe was hit by a particularly murderous storm at the end of February. In the French department of Vendée, the waves, associated with high tide, broke through two centuries old sea walls and flooded residential districts, killing 35 and forcing hundreds to evacuate the area. Closer to home – at least mine – the sea overran the sea walls north of Saint-Nazaire, flooding many coastal villages and devastating the salt flats around the historical town of Guerande. Such storms are not uncommon in Western Europe. The last ones – Lothar in 1999 and the unnamed tempest which laid wast to Brittany in 1987 – were, if anything, more violent. What made Xinthia so efficient a killer was the combination of strong winds, high tide, badly kept sea walls and irresponsible mayors who allowed people to build one-story houses in areas below sea level. Sea level rise was also a factor, however, and that tells a lot about some of the challenges we will face as the age of exuberance ends.

Most of French sea walls were built during the reign of Napoleon, at a time when sea level was more than twenty centimeters lower than today. This is not, by the way an uncommon situation. The Galveston sea wall, for instance, was completed in 1903. The lands they protected were often coastal swamp or shoals, which, even at the time, were seriously threatened by erosion and storms. The sea level rise made them more vulnerable, and this vulnerability is bound to increase as the ongoing global warming – or weirding – slowly melts Greenland and Antarctic icecaps.

Of course, we won't see the tsunamis of Hollywood apocalyptic fantasies and we can be reasonably sure no dolphin will swim down the drowned streets of Paris or London any time soon. A sea level rise of two meters over the next 90 years is however clearly possible. James Hansen even suggests it could reach five meters. This doesn't sound a lot, but this would doom many coastal cities and force them to enclose themselves behind high walls.

Xinthia has made the French government, as well as local officials, to realize that something had to be done – or at least said – about the situation. The under-minister for Ecology, Chantal Jouanno, has announced a “sea wall plan”, the objective of which will be to repair all French sea walls within five years.

And that is where peak energy comes into play.

Sea walls are very expensive – from $4,000 to $7,000 a meter – and it is highly doubtful that the cash-starved French state will able to find this kind of money. The situation will only get worse as we move farther down the slope of Hubbert's curve. Indeed, as the amount of net energy available to the society decreases, so will the part of which any state will be able to mobilize for any large project, until all available resources are used up by – mostly inadequate – maintenance operations and the capacity of the society to react to a major crisis becomes essentially zero.

The usual way out of this conundrum was for the state to borrow, but is is becoming more and more difficult as the burden of the debt becomes heavier and heavier. European regulations – and common sense - keep France from running too large a deficit, besides, France's public debt has reached 75% of Gross Domestic Product, a level even politicians deem unsustainable.

Another solution would be to give the job – or rather the responsibility not to do it – to local authorities. They are, however, as cash-starved as the state, as most of their resources come from it and are decreasing in real terms. Moreover, as most of them are small, they often lack the expertise to manage large projects and are more likely to yield to local lobbies.

A third option would be to trust corporations with the task of repairing and maintaining the seawalls, probably within the frame of some “partnership” or “public service delegation” contract of the same kind of those which are used for water distribution – at least in France. The chosen firm would keep the sea wall in working order and make the needed investment in exchange of the right to collect an often sizable fee from the protected population. Of course this will only work as long as the said population has enough resource for the firm to run a benefit. When it becomes too small or too poor, the corporation will be forced to curtail operations, investment will be stopped and maintenance reduced to a minimum until the inevitable happens. But of course, neither the state nor whatever local authority will be in charge of the work will be responsible.

The problem is that our societies is gradually losing the capacity to maintain the infrastructures fossil fuels enabled it to build, a situation which can only worsen with time. The sensible thing to do would be abandoning – gradually of course – non-crucial infrastructures and use resources thus spared to build simpler but more resilient systems, which could be managed by a poorer and more decentralized society. This is what suggested the President of the Vendée departmental council when he said the destroyed houses should not be rebuilt - which proves that even far right fundies can say intelligent things from time to time.

This is unlikely to happen, however, at least not in a concerted way. This is simply not compatible with the prevailing “progress ideology”. What will happen is that states will try to put the burden – and the blame for failure – on somebody else's shoulders. Infrastructures, including sea walls will continue to quietly decay. System failures such as the one we experienced last month will become more and more common The population will slowly settle into a new normal of unreliable grids, broken roads and flooded streets while resource starved authorities will make up for their growing impotence by making noisy speeches about “sea wall plans” and the obvious inability of such or such local official – usually from an opposing party – to assume his responsibilities.

And of course, they will divert a significant part of whatever resources they are left into pointless but spectacular projects such as nuclear plants

Eventually infrastructures will be abandoned. Coastal plains will turn into shoals, swamps or even shallow gulfs. Poor, then not so poor, households will drop off the grid. More and more people will rely on local resources for food, but also clothing and transportation, then will take maintenance of locally vital infrastructures into their own hands, making the state more and more irrelevant in the process, and at the end a new, relocalized, society will emerge.

The problem is that it won't be painless. The progress ideology is simply to strong for authorities – whether national, local, or international – to plan for decline. Instead, they will suffer it, squandering their resources into delaying the inevitable, and ensuring there will be many more Xinthias.


  1. I was in La Faut sur Mer the summer before last with my family for two weeks on vacation. I see that the whole village is under water and 26 people died. This is the rice for loving beaches and living on the ocean. The weather can change so quickly. Even as we were there a storm brewed up very quickly. Looking at the villagfe on the google maps I see that it is like an island surrounded by water. We were on the street Rue des Nereides. behind the house were dikes which people took walks on and we had to walk a kilometer to the beach. The houses were mostly rented to tourists or used when the owners themselves were on vacation as I understand. But I suppose lots of pensioners/retirees were living there year round.

  2. Living in the midwest of the US as I do, encroaching sea levels won't affect me. I am though watching the possibility of spring flooding. Luckily I'm meters above any area that might flood.

    It will slowly get worse as time goes on, I'm sure. Thanks for the euro prospective, it's very informative.

  3. Galacticsurfer, yes, it was a very touristic area on a very touristic island, which definitely had an influence upon the events. Homes are very expensive in the area and proposals to limit building in threatened areas were not going to be popular.

    Inhabiting areas under sea level is an old habit in Europe and not necessarily a bad one - look at the Netherlands, for instance - but it requires good maintenance of the infrastructures, something which will be in short supply in the future.

    Dltrammel, you are welcome. The Midwest won't be submerged anytime soon. Watch for drought, however. It was a desert during the last interglacial period

  4. Another American Midwesterner posting here, from Chicago.

    The U.S. is the country that has the most redundant infrastructure that will need to be abandoned, but instead we have elected to bankrupt the country and make the entire population a slave to maintaining increasingly obsolete infrastructure that only spurs sprawl development and makes more people vulnerable as the net energy available to us decreases.

    I speak, of course, of our 5.7 million miles on high-speed, limited access highways, and the fantastic Colorado River plumbing system of about 30 large and ultra-large (over 600 ft high)dams that make it possible for cities of 4 Million people to blossom on the high desert, while Midwestern, Eastern, and Mid-South cities built on major waterways depopulate and crumble. Cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis, Rochester, Cleveland, Newark, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Cincinnati were born 200 years ago and sensibly located close to fresh water supplies and water transport. But we have destroyed these places in order to build evermore interstate highways to suburbs, and mega-dams in the desert states- things we will not be able to maintain on our way down the slope. Yet these are the things our recent "stimulus" package allocated most of our money to sustaining, at the expense of about 67%of the population and 75% of the economic activity in this country.

  5. Why are sea walls so expensive?

  6. I have the same question as Richard; why are the sea walls so expensive! If they date from Napoleonic times shouldn't they be maintainable with a similar level of mostly human powered tech? Politically that's a tough sell but as things continue it will become more likely.