Climate change, rising sea levels, and the location of the new St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver

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      The good news is that Vancouver's wealthiest businessman, Jim Pattison, has announced a whopping $75-million donation to St. Paul's Hospital Foundation.

      The money will fund a new $1.2-billion complex called the Jim Pattison Medical Centre on False Creek Flats. It will include a new hospital.

      Pattison's gift has been hailed as the largest individual donation to a medical facility in Canadian history.

      It was announced on the same day that U.S. president Donald Trump basically declared war on the climate.

      Trump signed an executive order lifting the previous Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. This could put America on a trajectory to sharply increase greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

      So what links these two news stories?

      The B.C. Liberal government is eager to proceed with the new hospital in a low-lying area of Vancouver. And the B.C. NDP has not raised any objections, fearing political repercussions for questioning a major health infrastructre project.

      Keep in mind that the new St. Paul's Hospital will be built in an area that was underwater near the end of the 19th century before it was reclaimed.

      Meanwhile, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has forecast that sea levels may rise a metre this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

      Because of the Gulf Stream, many scientists expect the effects to be worse on the eastern side of North American than the western side, which is good news for Vancouverites.

      However, this assessment does not take into account the possibility of massive releases of methane from permafrost in the northern hemisphere That would trap far more heat in the atmosphere and drive up the average global temperature, accelerating sea-level increases.

      A sea-level rise of one metre is highly unlikely to jeopardize the new St. Paul's Hospital for reasons outlined below.

      The new hospital will transform the area around the corner of Main Street and Terminal Avenue.
      City of Vancouver

      Higher sea levels aren't out of the question

      The risk, however, is if the conventional analysis is wrong. What if sea levels rise far more sharply and quickly than many scientists anticipate?

      One of the more extreme views comes from James Hansen, a former NASA scientist and the man most responsible for generating awareness of climate change in the 1980s.

      In 2016, he and 18 others wrote a paper in the peer-reviewed Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, which pointed to a sea-level rise of "several meters" within 50 to 150 years.

      One of those coauthors was French paleoclimatologist Valérie Masson-Delmotte.

      Their paper cited a paleo-millennial timescale in pointing out that climate feedbacks caused sea-level rises of six to nine metres at a time "when the Earth was less less than 1 °C warmer than today".

      They also maintained that ice melting in the North Atlantic and Southern oceans increases atmospheric temperatures, driving more powerful storms.

      "The modeling, paleoclimate evidence, and ongoing observations together imply that 2 °C global warming above the preindustrial level could be dangerous," they wrote. "Continued high fossil fuel emissions this century are predicted to yield (1) cooling of the Southern Ocean, especially in the Western Hemisphere; (2) slowing of the Southern Ocean overturning circulation, warming of the ice shelves, and growing ice sheet mass loss; (3) slowdown and eventual shutdown of the Atlantic overturning circulation with cooling of the North Atlantic region; (4) increasingly powerful storms; and (5) nonlinearly growing sea level rise, reaching several meters over a timescale of 50–150 years. These predictions, especially the cooling in the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic with markedly reduced warming or even cooling in Europe, differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments."

      Premier Christy Clark and Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced a $500-million upgrade to the existing St. Paul's Hospital before later supporting a new hospital as a replacement.
      Stephen Thomson

      Architectural firm looked at local scenarios

      So what could this mean for Vancouver?

      In 2010, Bing Thom Architects analyzed the effect of rising sea levels on Vancouver shorelines under different scenarios.

      The firm examined how much land would be reclaimed by the sea. It also emphasized that this analysis did not take into effect various measures governments could take, such as building dikes.

      A one-metre sea-level rise resulted in a loss of waterfront and some lost land in tidal flats in southwest Vancouver. No problem for the new St. Paul's Hospital.

      A four-metre rise, on the other hand, transformed the look of the city. Under this scenario, Stanley Park became an island and the Port of Vancouver and Granville Island disappeared.

      With sea levels four metres higher, the water from False Creek crossed over Main Street to where the new St. Paul's Hospital will be built.

      Bing Thom Architects showed even greater effects with a six-metre sea-level rise: Vancouver's downtown peninsula became a second island near Stanley Park.

      With a seven-metre rise, the city looked like an archipelago. Of course, this ignored the effect of mitigation measures.

      “For sure, people are going to be building dikes,” one of the firm's principals, Michael Heeney, told the Georgia Straight in 2010. “So you don’t want to be overly alarmist.”

      In the same article, UBC climate-change specialist and mathematician Hadi Dowlatabadi said that he expects False Creek to be flooded if dikes aren't built.

      So far, the $1.2-billion estimate for the new St. Paul's Hospital doesn't factor in the cost of dikes.

      But the way things are going under the Trump administration, this infrastructure will probably be required sooner than many people might expect.

      If Hansen is correct, the serious flooding could occur by 2065, which is in the lifetime of Vancouver's millennial generation.

      That's to say nothing of the cost of protecting Vancouver International Airport, which is also situated in a low-lying area of the region.