Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
The New York Times seems to be running short of environmental journalists. Its latest salvo in the attempt to keep climate change at the forefront of American minds was written by Michael Kimmelman. “Who?” you ask. Micheal Kimmelman, the current architecture critic of The New York Times. (But, rest assured, we are told by his NY Times’ CV page, he was the paper’s chief art critic.) Kidding about his actual experience and job title aside, it is all true, the Times tells us that Kimmelman’s reporting “has often focused on urban affairs, public space, infrastructure and social equity as well as on new buildings and design.”
Kimmelman’s piece appears on April 7, 2017 in the WORLD section, under the heading Changing Climate, Changing Cities and bears the title “Rising Waters Threaten China’s Rising Cities” and is sub-titled “In the Pearl River Delta, breakneck development is colliding with the effects of climate change.”
The piece starts with the news:
“The rains brought torrents, pouring into basements and malls, the water swiftly rising a foot and a half.
The city of Dongguan, a manufacturing center here in the world’s most dynamic industrial region, was hit especially hard by the downpour in May 2014. More than 100 factories and shops were inundated. Water climbed knee-high in 20 minutes, wiping out inventory for dozens of businesses.
Next door in Guangzhou, an ancient, mammoth port city of 13 million, helicopters and a fleet of 80 boats had to be sent to rescue trapped residents. Tens of thousands lost their homes, and 53 square miles of nearby farmland were ruined. The cost of repairs topped $100 million.”
followed by a sad, but unlikely, anecdote:
“Chen Rongbo, who lived in the city, saw the flood coming. He tried to scramble to safety on the second floor of his house, carrying his 6-year-old granddaughter. He slipped. The flood swept both of them away.”
(the news report indicates a water rise of 1.5 feet over 20 minutes….not exactly a flash flood.)
The story is about a springtime flood that happened three years ago. Oh, you thought “rising waters” was going to reference the breakneck speed of rising sea level in Guangzhou, but no, this is a story about river flooding.
And Guangzhou? Where is that when it gets up in the morning? Well, like Istanbul is Constantinople and Constantinople is Istanbul, Guangzhou is the city-formerly-known-as-Canton. The wiki tells us “Canton, is the capital and most populous city of the province of Guangdong in southern China. Located on the Pearl River about 120 km (75 mi) north-northwest of Hong Kong and 145 km (90 mi) north of Macau, Guangzhou was a major terminus of the maritime Silk Road and continues to serve as a major port and transportation hub.” Further illuminating. Guangzhou has a “a population of 13 million and forms part of one of the most populous metropolitan agglomerations on Earth. Some estimates place the population of the built-up area of the Pearl River Delta Mega City as high as 44 million without Hong Kong and 54 million including it.”
Describing Guangzhou as being “on the Pearl River” can be misleading — like saying NY City is “on the Hudson River”. More pertinent is this picture:
A small part of Guangzhou from the air. (photo credit: believed to be by Josh Haner)
The Pearl River is in the foreground, on the left. To the left are rice paddies. In the background is the Shizi Ocean, a long arm of tidal estuary extending north and a bit west from the Zhujiang River Estuary, which is the main body of water west of Hong Kong, which feeds into the South China Sea.
This is the Pearl River Delta area — to understand this, we need another map:
Almost virtually every river in south China ends at Guangzhou.
Kimmelman tells us:
“Flooding has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta. So even the rains that May, the worst in the area in years, soon drifted from the headlines. People complained and made jokes on social media about wading through streets that had become canals and riding on half-submerged buses through lakes that used to be streets. But there was no official hand-wringing about what caused the floods or how climate change might bring more extreme storms and make the problems worse.”
Apparently, Kimmelman is not required to actually research his “infrastructure and social equity” pieces or he would already know these two things which are common knowledge and which explain why “there was no official hand-wringing”:
- Canton/Guangzhou historically was a city of canals — almost a Venice — on the Pearl River flood plain. Modern Guangzhou is built over the top of the old canals, but only by 3 feet (1 meter) or so.
Like Miami Beach, Florida, Guangzhou has been built less than a meter above “The rising South China Sea and the overstressed Pearl River network lie just a meter or so below much of this new multitrillion-dollar development.” (quoting Kimmelman).
Like Miami Beach, much of the infrastructure of the city has been built below known historic water levels and in many areas, lower than normally expected high high tides.
- The South China Sea is one of the areas of the Earth’s oceans that don’t seem to be experiencing even the general planet-wide mean sea level rise of approximate 8 inches of the last century.
This map shows the geographical relationship of Guangzhou/Canton to Hong Kong, which is the site of the three closest tides stations of the Global Sea Level Observing System with current data. The link is to Quarry Bay, at Hong Kong, GLOSS station #77 (bottom right). [To see plots, scroll down to “Data in PSMSL” and click on the two little icons.] Two of the stations show that sea level is currently approximately at the same level as in the 1950s — units are millimeters. Only Quarry Bay shows any relative sea level rise at all — and that only 3 inches since 1980, most of which occurred 1980-2000 and sea level appears flat since then. In short, the South China Sea is not rising, at least not in this area. The journalistic alarm seems based on recent papers such as this in which concern for the future is based on projected models of sea level rise in the South China Sea, rise, which according to local tides gauges, is not currently happening.
Tides, of course, play a big role in flooding — as in storm surge and during heavy spring rains (historically monstrous in the region) — the state of the tide directly determines or adds to local flooding — particularly Spring Tides and King Tides, which are the highest tides of the year.
So, for Canton/Guangzhou, what are the tides like? The range of tides for Dongzhou International Terminal in Dongguan (see map above – about 20 miles southeast of Guangzhou on the Shizi Ocean) and for all other Dongzhou terminals is 0.3 to 3 meters. That means that today, under normal circumstances, there are tides that alone regularly flood much of the lowest lying parts of the city.
In 2015, The Economist calmly explained: “Why are so many Chinese cities flooded? The short answer is that the country’s urban sprawl has been expanding much faster than its drainage infrastructure could catch up.“
Guangzhou sits at the head of a long estuary, the Shizi Ocean, and at the terminus of the Pearl River and its multiple tributaries. When storms push water up the estuary and slow or even reverse the release of rising, flood-stage river water to the Shizi Ocean, serious flooding occurs. And, as we know “Flooding has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta”
How serious is the flooding risk? Here’s what a single meter of rising water causes for Guangzhou:
The blue is flood water — covering a high percentage of the megalopolis that includes Guangzhou and its 13 million people and its manufacturing centers. [Hong Kong, however, is almost virtually unaffected, as it sits up high and dry, only Shenzhen’s lowest lying coastal/delta area see any effect of a 1 meter rise.]
The Bottom Line:
China’s new capitalism has been spurring unbridled growth of new population centers and manufacturing centers — seeming unthinking growth. Like much of the growth around the world, massive amounts of infrastructure — worth billions of dollars — are being built directly in harm’s way — built on known flood plains, built on land below known historic high tide levels and Nature’s previously existing safety-valves for excess flood waters have been closed off — like the Meadowlands of New Jersey — and the natural runoff canals of Guangzhou.
There is little or no evidence that “climate change” has affected this area of China — where there has been little relative sea level rise, far less than the planetary average, and no data has been provided (nor could I find any in a serious search online) for historic rainfall amounts. We do know, however, that “has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta” and nothing particularly odd is happening there in the present.
There is something new happening here though. Predictable periodic widespread floods, for which this river delta is famous, no longer are flooding sleepy fishing villages and far-flung rice paddies. Instead, these all-too-common events are flooding modern high-tech factories, high-rise apartment building basements and first floors, high-speed highways and the rail system that moves tremendous quantities of raw materials, manufactured goods and the workers that make them, costing China’s economy (and its insurers) hundreds of millions of dollars.
Human folly and greed have been proven, once again, to far outweigh common sense in the rush to modernize and create wealth.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
Despite the rising evidence that there is something terribly wrong with the ever-changing/never-changing Climate Change Consensus (CO2/GHG driven global warming) hypothesis, journalists around the world struggle to turn every story into a Climate Change story — apparently there is a still a strong market for any story that can find something to blame on the Climate Change boogeyman. Like this NY Times story, the “evidence” for the posited cause ranges from non-existent to very weak association, nearly always being based solely on predictions [unproven, not yet seen in the wild] future effects. Fact-less journalism seems to be becoming the new normal.
Please share your experience and views on fact-less journalism in the Comments. If you have lived in the Hong Kong — Guangzhou area of southern China in the last 50 years or so, I’d love to hear your experiences with rainfall and river flooding there.
As always, I’ll try to answer any sensible questions (I don’t respond to trolls).
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