When Civil Engineers Attack!

I kid you not.

There’s two main ways to respond to rising sea levels, defend or retreat. Defence means bigger sea walls, tidal barriers, big, expensive works. Retreat means letting nature take her course, if a coastal area is going to be flooded, then let it. The wetland will provide their own protection for towns and cities further inland.

So instead, the UK Institute of Civil Engineers and the UK architect’s think-tank have got together to come up with a third option – retreat, defend, or ATTACK! If the ocean wants to play it rough, then bring it on! We’ll see you outside, bitch!

*Ahem* Seriously, the plan is to build out from cities into the ocean, starting half-way sensibly with land reclamation and piers, and then rapidly getting into floating buildings, houseboats, and re-using oil rigs for office space.

It might look like this:

I can’t decide if this is an awesome idea, or insane, King Canute-style hubris. It costs stupidly huge amounts to stop an oil rig from rusting away in salt water, which you can bear if it’s producing a million dollars worth of oil each day. Plonk a university on top of that oil rig and the maintenance cost alone starts to look unbearable. One of the report’s authors admitted that the proposal was uncosted.

Still, I like the idea of civil engineers being aggressively uncivil.

18 thoughts on “When Civil Engineers Attack!”

  1. I had an “attack” idea a while back:

    Since floating icebergs displace the same amount of water before they melt as after, the only water that will raise the sea level is the ice currently locked up in glaciers. So we could just dam the glaciers instead of putting dams around all the cities.

    (This isn’t my preferred solution by any means, but I’m guessing that damming a few thousand miles of unpopulated area is less work and has less catastrophic failure modes than damming thousands of miles of coastal cities.)

    1. Surprisingly, the amount of freshwater locked up behind dams already has a noticeable effect upon sea level rise, reducing it by about 0.5 mm per year. For context, we’re currently at about 3 mm per year rise. Unfortunately, ground water extraction is increasing sea level rise by about 0.5 mm per year, so the human drivers cancel out pretty well.

      Damming the glaciers would just require a wall around Greenland and the West Antarctica. How hard could that be? (It won’t change the other driver of sea level rise, which is just simple thermal expansion.)

      1. I’ve seen varying numbers but I believe they indicate that thermal expansion of the water is a larger driver than glacial melting.

        Perhaps we could move to a titanium-based infrastructure?

        1. It is at the moment, but not in the future.

          Expansion depends linearly upon temperature, so it’s as predictable as temperature rise. Melting, however, has lots of horribly positive feedbacks, which are poorly known. There’s no clearly defined upper limit on just how fast ice can melt, especially when it’s in the form of ice sheets that are flowing off into the oceans, and there may be assorted thresholds at which ice starts to melt much faster. Melting will end up much more important than expansion, it’s just a question of when.

          As for titanium at low, low prices, the FFC process should deliver, now that it’s finally dragged it’s way through the courts, wasting plenty of people’s time and money. Whoops.

    1. It’s sea-steading within an existing legal territory, with a valid business model based around providing more rentable or saleable space right next to the most valuable land in the world. And it still looks too expensive.

      You never know, maybe someone will come up with some materials/coatings that reduce structural or maintenance costs to bearable levels. In the meantime, I’ll be landsteading.

        1. Well, mangrovesteading is one approach to sea level rise, combining the development of self-sustaining natural ecosystems that provide erosion-resistant coasts along with the opportunity to farm particularly nimble goats. Provided that temperatures don’t rise too high, then predation from crocodiles will be limited.

    1. And doesn’t do anything about the main problem, which is the increase in heat in the bio-geosphere.

      It would solve sea level rise, where “solve” means put off for a while.

      1. I live in Canada, where the greatest long term climate problem is that ice sheets at their maximum extend past our southern borders. Causing a Neo-Oligocene looks like a reasonable solution to that problem.

        1. Given that our emissions are comfortably above the worst-case A1FI scenario, I think there’s like risk of that. With some commitment, we might even beat the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum.

  2. Wouldn’t it be easier, rather than colonising the sea, to live on land that’s suitably elevated in the first place? There are a bunch of places well above sea level with tolerable climates where not many people live (especially if you take tolerability to include places where people voluntarily choose to live today, like New York, Singapore or Helsinki).

    Something that intrigues me is why Wellington and Auckland both have substantial areas of reclaimed land. The early settlers had a huge, lightly populated country to build on, so why was it economic to dehydrate sea?

    1. Coz flat land makes life so much easier? Coz it’s far cheaper to build roads, factories, ports and whatever on flat ground? Coz new land right next to a city is worth rather a lot of money? (See also Hong Kong International.)

      And in the less developed world, that’s where the fertile soil is. Bangladesh supports four times more people than the UK, despite low-tech agriculture.

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