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Kominz co-authors article on rising sea levels

March 30, 2006

KALAMAZOO--A paper published recently in the journal Science and co-written by a Western Michigan University professor of geosciences shows a rapid escalation in the rate at which sea levels are rising and provides dramatic evidence of global warming.

Dr. Michelle Kominz is one of the lead authors of the review paper titled "The Phanerozoic Record of Global Sea-Level Change," published late last year. Among its findings, researchers noted that ocean levels are rising twice as fast over the most recent 200 years compared to the average rise over the preceding 5,000 years. Human-induced global warming appears to be the culprit.

"Almost everybody who lives along a beach has been experiencing beach erosion," Kominz says. "Much of that has been a factor of the long-term rise in sea level. Eventually, they're going to be underwater. It's just a question of time."

Kominz is listed as the second author of the paper, which examined sea-level change over the past 500 million years. The lead author is her longtime colleague Dr. Kenneth Miller of Rutgers, University. Kominz began working with Miller, who has been analyzing drilling data on the New Jersey shore for more than a decade, when she was at Rutgers in the late 1990s. In all, 10 author-researchers contributed.

Kominz says the rate of sea level rise over the past 5,000 years has been 2 millimeters (.08 inches) per year. Over the past 200 years, that rate has jumped to 4 mm (.16 inches) per year. Kominz says that rate could increase further if continued emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, persist.

"What's the difference over the last 200 years?" Kominz asks. "The answer is all the carbon dioxide, the methane, the nitrous oxide, etc. that man has managed to move from the earth into the atmosphere."

Kominz says the trend does not bode well for relatively flat, coastal areas along the East Coast, Gulf Coast and Florida. A rise of one meter (3.3 feet) in sea level, which is feasible within the next 100 years, would put much of those areas beneath water.

The outlook for hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, for instance, is bleak if things continue as they are, Kominz says.

"It's not good," she says of New Orleans' prospects. "I've been talking to folks about New Orleans for a long time. We found out that that's not just a hypothetical situation and, unfortunately, there are a lot of other low-lying areas."

Global warming also could impact the interior of the country if it continues, Kominz says. The U.S. bread belt may become a desert. That's certainly within the realm of possibility, since it's happened before.

"Underneath Kansas is a desert," Kominz says. "When you look at the geomorphology under Kansas, what you see is that underneath the wheat are these beautiful dune structures. When you look at that from the perspective of a geologist or a geomorphologist, you're thinking, hey, we could be in trouble pretty quickly."

Kominz supports the rapid shift to alternative, non-hydrocarbon fuel sources, but doesn't see the United States doing enough and says it certainly isn't leading the way in developing new "green" technologies.

"If we leave all of this innovation to the other parts of the world that are trying to do something about global warming, then we are going to miss the boat in the United States of America," Kominz says. "We can continue to be the major users and abusers of hydrocarbons or we can start trying to do something about it."

Kominz joined the WMU faculty in 1997. She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics, magna cum laude, from Colby College; a master's degree in oceanography from the University of Rhode Island; and a doctorate in geology from Columbia University.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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