With unproven oil reserves in the range of 28 to 213 billion barrels, massive mineral deposits in the seabed, and millions of tons of potential fisheries; claims over the contentious 1.3-million-square-mile area of the South China Seas (SCS) have become an increasing focal point for the global community. Currently, seven ASEAN member nations are jockeying against one another for control of this area. In the past, this has led to overt conflict between China and Vietnam in the 1970s, and more recently to displays of force. Yet, most of the atolls, banks and islands that make up the SCS are merely a few inches or feet above sea level at high tide. Often times, they flood over during typhoon season and have to be evacuated. With environmental predictions of sea-level rise on the order of 3 to 6 feet during the remainder of the 21st century, what would happen if the “dry” areas of the SCS became submerged?
One of the world’s leading monitors of sea level rise and climate change, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in 2007 forecasted a 2.0 to 11.5°F increase in global temperatures that will result in 3 to 6 feet of sea level rise by the end of this century. Yet, one of the biggest misconceptions about sea-level rise is that it is caused directly by glacial melt around the North and South Poles. On the contrary, as global temperatures increase, the oceans become warmer and thus expand. Nearly 57% of current sea level rise is actually attributed to this phenomenon; the remainder is from ice-berg, glacial and polar icecap melt. In the last few years, China has become particularly aware of the implications of sea level rise and has been studying its affects, in addition to its regular monitoring of its surrounding waters.
Indeed, Chinese satellites outfitted with advanced altimeter as well as multiple ocean observation stations along the SCS have been monitoring currents, depths, and temperature changes in the contested water for decades. Many of these observations are beginning to be tied with sea level rise and are filling the media and scientific journals, such as Journal of Tropical Oceanography (热带海洋学报) and Journal of Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学学报), with increasing frequency. The overwhelming conclusion is that the water temperature has been increasing and so have the water levels. For example, Hong Kong’s government, which has been tracking the mean sea level in Victoria Harbor since 1954, found that sea level has risen 2.8 mm per year. Hong Kong’s findings also coincide with IPCC sea-level rise predictions. This may appear to be a relatively minor amount at first. But taking into account the extreme tides and currents in Hong Kong; the area could experience swells of up to 10 feet. Regrettably, no other municipality in the area has kept as comprehensive records as Hong Kong.