May 10, 2010

Taiwan Threatened By Rising Sea Levels

When a temple was raised for Matsu -- the goddess of the sea -- in south Taiwan 300 years ago, worshippers felt the spot chosen would be a safe retreat from the ocean. They never took global warming into consideration.

Now, as sea levels are rising, the township of Tungshih is forced to erect a new temple nearby, up 10 feet from the original site.

Tsai Chu-wu, chief secretary of the temple, told the AFP news agency that the temple floods almost every year now, which explains why the 63-million-dollar project needs to be completed.

"Once the new temple is completed, we should be able to avoid floods and the threat of the rising sea, at least for many, many years," he said.

Besides the temple of Matsu, the entire island of Taiwan is under increasing pressure from the effects of global warming.

Although two-thirds of Taiwan is covered by mountains, most of the one-third that is left makes up the heart of the island's economy, which is mostly flat land near sea level.

This part of Taiwan has many populous cities, including several industrial zones, and three nuclear power facilities. A petrochemical complex built by Formosa Plastics Group for more than $20 billion is also located in the low-lying region.

Unlike the Matsu temple, none of these important economic sites can be relocated, leaving them exposed to the wrath of global warming.

"If the sea levels keep rising, part of Taiwan's low-lying western part could be submerged," Wang Chung-ho, an earth scientist at Taiwan's top academic society Academia Sinica told AFP.

In association with the effects of global warming, many environmentalists point out that agriculture and fish farming could be partially at fault for over-pumping groundwater that has caused the groundwater level to fall, which in turn causes land to subside below sea level in some coastal areas.

The greatest extent of the advancing seawater has been estimated to be as far inland as 5.25 miles, affecting an area of about 40 square miles in southern Taiwan's Pingtung county, according to a study co-written by Wang.

Experts warn that once low-lying areas are immersed by sea water, it is nearly impossible to reverse the tide.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations released an assessment report in 2007 stating that the world's sea levels are projected to rise up by nearly 2 feet by the end of the century.

However, recent findings in greenhouse gas emissions that are growing faster than previously believed, have some, included Wang, more concerned. "As more records show that the global warming is turning for the worse, we estimate that the sea level would rise by up to 6.5 feet before the close of the century, or up to 10 times that of the last century," Wang said.

Taiwan authorities have started drafting the island's first climate change whitepaper, which aims to develop countermeasures to prevent natural disasters caused by the rising temperatures.

Scientists at Academia Sinica warned last year that global warming would also cause the amount of heavy rain Taiwan receives to triple over the next 20 years. The prediction is based on statistics showing the incidence of heavy rainfall has doubled in the past 45 years, which scientists are contributing to the rise in global temperatures.

Torrential rains could burst the Shihmen Dam, a reservoir on a river that flows past Taipei county, where millions of people live, Wang warned.

The whitepaper draft calls for raising coastal embankments, building dams, and improving river water and soil conservation. "This should have been done earlier," said Hsu, a member of an academic panel that reviewed whitepaper.


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