BEAUMONT, Texas -- Jim Weatherford jokes that he's in the market for coastal property at an elevation of nine feet above sea level. He'd like to leave the property to his grandchildren.
Weatherford's thinking is, by their time, that elevation might be beachfront property because of a rise in sea level.
It's not a completely ridiculous proposition.
Weatherford, who is in his 40s and is a coastal geologist for the Texas General Land Office, is among the scientists, officials, teachers and others gathered this week in Corpus Christi to collaborate, share information and engage decision makers and the public about planning for a future that likely will include some degree of higher seas.
The Sea Level Rise 2010 Conference, hosted by the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, sought to address the physical, biological and human dimensions of the phenomenon.
"Decisions we're making now about policy may have implications much longer than (100 years), so we've got to get it right," said David Vaughn of the British Antarctic Survey.
Vaughn said the sea level currently rises at about 3.5 millimeters per year. At that rate, the Gulf Coast would see a gain of about one foot of water in 100 years.
Jim Westgate, a Lamar University geology professor, said to expect Southeast Texas beaches to retreat about a mile inland for each foot of sea level increase. Both Bolivar Peninsula and Sabine Pass would be inundated under a scenario like this.
It isn't clear whether that rate will remain constant -- or if it will increase.
"It would be entirely possible to get two or three times that," Vaughn said.
The wild cards in the deck are the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, Vaughn said. Projections on how much melting is expected from those quarters is "on the low side," he said.
While he said he doesn't predict any extreme variations from conservative estimates, he cautioned that there is a lot scientists don't yet know about new tool s for monitoring large ice sheets.
Exacerbating the rising sea levels is the subsidence of coastal land.
Weatherford said factoring in a subsidence rate of 3 millimeters brings the sea level rise to a total of more than 6 millimeters (about a quarter inch).
Sea level rise potentially affects many things.
From the placement of wastewater treatment plants, coastal redevelopment and building standards and vital wetlands habitat, planners and policy makers have myriad issues to address.
Jefferson County officials are looking for options to deal with rising water.
Jeff Branick, assistant and successor to Jefferson County Judge Ron Walker, said the county is studying subsidence rates to get a better grasp of what to expect in coming years.
Since Hurricane Ike flattened dunes at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge, the county has also worked to secure funding to restore a coastline that protects the wetlands that in turn act as a buffer between the Gulf and the human communities of Jefferson County.
So far, that quest is elusive. The project didn't qualify for FEMA hazard mitigation grants because part of the shoreline is on federal lands.
Rising sea levels are accounted for in the planning for county projects in coastal areas, Branick added.
Vaughn said he was impressed with Texans' grasp of the issue.
"One of the fascinating things to me is coming to Texas and realizing we're all dealing with the same problem ... Texans are thinking very innovatively about how to deal with sea level projections," Vaughn said.
He added that the time has come for the problem to pass from scientific and theoretical to practical measures.
"I'm not trying to scare anybody -- I'm not trying to cause anyone sleepless nights -- but knowledge is power. We're really trying to empower people to adapt to sea level rise ... as best they can."
Weatherford, likewise, said there is no need to panic.
Even if the sea level rise exceeds all current estimates, human ability to adapt to a changing environment also is a factor.
"We don't know what the technology is going to be in 100 years," he said. "They might have floating houses by then."