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Gulf waters are rising. Why Texas may have to relinquish some land back to the sea.

Crowds along the Gulf Coast beach at Port Aransas.
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
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Crowds along the Gulf Coast beach at Port Aransas.

From Texas Standard:

As world leaders meet in Scotland for an annual summit on climate change, Texans can see its current effects along the coastline.

An in-depth report by WFAA Dallas reporters David Schechter and Chance Horner highlights the changes coming because of a combination of “rising sea level, acidifying ocean water and permanent loss of coastline.” Schechter spoke with Texas Standard.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How much of the Texas Gulf Coast has been swallowed up by climate change?

David Schechter: Well, if you live there, it's I think on a day to day basis, really difficult to tell. The fact of the matter is it's about the width of two quarters every year that the ocean is rising. And then you have a unique situation along the Gulf Coast of Texas, where the land is also sinking a little bit. So that's called the subsidence – where the land sinks from pumping water out or oil out from underneath the ground. It's a multiplier of the water going up and the land going down, which gives Texas the fastest – or one of the fastest rates – of what they call relative sea level rise in the country. That's the combination of those two factors.

You also report that it's the quality of water that's a concern. How so?

It's amazing to think that we could actually, like humans, could change the ocean water because there's just so much there. But you know, we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that's what's heating up the planet. But as you warm up the planet, a lot of the heat is absorbed by the Earth or by the water. So if we didn't have oceans, the temperature on Earth would be much higher. So it's absorbing the heat and it's also absorbing a lot of that carbon dioxide that gets released. So now you've got warmer ocean water from adding in the heat. But when you add in carbon dioxide into the water, it actually makes a chemical reaction. It changes the chemistry of the water. So it's now just a little bit more acidic. And all these things that live under the water, which depend on a consistent level of water chemistry, are now dealing with a change in the chemistry.

What are we seeing right now in the Gulf Coast marshes?

The marshes are slowly being inundated with the water level going up. There are parts around the country where the shells of oysters are degraded and some parts of the country are worse than others. But it's starting to show up. You could see it in the food web, they call it, this is – this creature that eats this creature, eats this creature – and then we're eating the fish, we're eating the shrimp, we're getting the things with the shells at the end, which are starting to suffer.

A recent UN report says there’s no end to sea level rise in sight. What does this mean for all those communities that dot the Texas Gulf Coast?

We've got world leaders in Glasgow now trying to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions. Let's say that they did hit their targets, which are very ambitious. First of all, the sea level rise isn't going to stop – decades, hundreds of years, really even – it's cooked in, it's going to continue to happen for a long period of time. So if we do meet our targets, the water will continue to rise and will start to slowly inundate some places. If we miss those targets and just keep doing exactly what we're doing, you would see parts of Texas City with the refineries go underwater, you'd see the Galveston boardwalk go underwater. You'd see parts of downtown Corpus Christi underwater. Not tomorrow. You know, we're talking end of the century and beyond because it rises so slowly. But if you don't do anything, it is so much worse than doing something – which is already bad.

What does all this mean? Adapt or move out? Are those the choices?

They talk about managed retreat. So there will be situations where the decision will need to be: Are we going to stay here and try to protect ourselves against the rising sea? Or are we slowly going to relinquish parts of these communities or parts of these beaches or parts of whatever it might be and say this is just going back to the ocean? Those are going to be real decisions. Those are going to be real things that we're talking about in the future. And it kind of, it hurts your brain because we're just not -- that's not the way we operate as a society. We don't just give up on areas that we know and love, but some places will certainly be sacrificed to the ocean over time.