Envisioning Future Sea Level Rise

In the past one hundred years, the Global Mean Sea Level has risen between 4 and 8 inches, and is currently rising at a rate of approximately 0.13 inches a year. However, the sea level rise “lock-in” – the rise we don’t see now, but which, due to emissions and global warming, is being locked in for the future – is increasing 10 times faster. While our current sea level rise is at a modest, but still threatening inch per decade, the future rise is at a foot per decade.

Carbon pollution has already locked in four feet of sea level rise, and if emissions continue to rise we could experience sea level rise as high as 23 feet. Ben Strauss and Climate Central have combined to create an interactive map demonstrating the devastation from locked-in sea level rise. In the highly improbable scenario in which we stop increasing emissions by 2020, and proceed to clean up the atmosphere, the United States is mostly protected from the ravages of rising waters, though certain coastal communities will still be at risk. In more likely scenarios, however, millions of people are threatened, and entire cities may be destroyed.

Cuba's extensive coastal development is in danger from sea level rise. (photo via flickr courtesy of RC_Fotos)

Cuba’s extensive coastal development is in danger from sea level rise. (photo via flickr courtesy of RC_Fotos)

Like many aspects of climate change, sea level rise is not consistent. In certain areas of the southern United States, for example, the sea is rising at rates as high as one third of an inch per year. Coastal areas in Texas and Louisiana are sinking, leading to an overall increase in the significance of even small increases in sea level. Cities and states around the world are developing adaptation and mitigation techniques, utilizing high-tech modeling systems. The World Bank has urged support for the threatened Maldives, though tangible solutions are yet to appear. Indeed, though research and support for adaptation are widespread, realistic options have lagged behind. Kiribati, the small South Pacific Island chain, is contemplating a mass migration to neighboring Fiji. And Cuba, after scientists released a report claiming that 122 towns will be damaged or destroyed by climate change, is planning to destroy coastal infrastructure in order to promote ecological revitalization.

Escaping the ravages of sea level rise may trigger human migration on a global scale if politically and economically feasible solutions fail to present themselves soon. In the current political and economic climate, however, it is difficult to envision any such solutions. In a world obsessed with consumption and growth, how are we to navigate the choppy waters of downscaling and preventing as much sea level rise as possible? And how are we to implement expensive or politically challenging adaptation techniques? Hopefully, these questions will be answered, but if not we can plan our future move based on the above map. Nebraska, anyone?

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