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The coastline of the United States (US) is retreating from the ocean at an alarming rate – and this is predicted to increase. This article discusses the causes and effects of sea level rise in the US in particular, and responses to it, ranging from protecting coastal areas to reducing global warming and climate change.
Warnings of Rising Sea Levels for US Coastal Areas
Experts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) recently reported that the US coastline is experiencing sharply rising sea levels, and their models predict that levels will continue to increase. The researchers at VIMS has identified different rates of rising sea levels in 32 coastal areas around the 20,000 km of US continental and Alaskan coastlines.
Communities on the Gulf and East Coasts of the US are predicted to experience the worst effects of sea level rise, with rises of 50 cm and higher in these coastal areas expected by 2050.
While sea level rise slowed in the West Coast up to 2013, the VIMS team has identified a recent upwards trend – becoming increasingly steep – which they predict will continue to increase in the next few decades.
Against this trend, Alaska’s coastline is actually advancing. This is due to the convergence of tectonic plates and shifting glaciers which are leading to an inverse phenomenon, land emergence.
The local variation is attributed to numerous factors, including prevailing weather patterns, the geological make-up of different coastal areas, and temporal weather events such as storms and hurricanes.
Climate Change Caused by Global Warming
The VIMS researchers identified ice sheet loss – the melting of large sheets of ice in the polar regions north of the Arctic Circle and in Antarctica – and the resulting changes to ocean dynamics as a leading cause of these rising sea levels.
This is in line with the scientific consensus on the leading cause of rising sea levels, which has been increasing at a dramatic and worrying rate since the early 1990s.
The three main causes of sea level rise are understood to be:
- Expansion of the oceans caused by water in our seas heating up
- Melting ice sheets in polar regions
- Melting glaciers in high altitudes
All of these factors have been increasing rapidly due to global warming and constitute a significant aspect of the critical problem of climate change.
Effects of Sea Level Rise and Climate Change
In places like the Gulf Coast of the US, the historic city of Venice in Italy and coastal areas in Bangladesh, rising sea levels are already having seriously detrimental effects on people, wildlife and the ecosystems that support them. They will continue to have these detrimental effects on more and more places in the near future.
The effects of sea level rise include higher risks of flooding and loss of life; declines in water quality, which has an impact on agriculture and local ecosystems; erosion of coastal areas; and inundation of low altitude coastal areas from the sea. These effects are detrimental to human and animal life, and local habitats.
The effects of rising sea levels caused by global warming are exacerbated by the fact that the world’s coastlines (including coastal areas in the US) are more highly populated than inland regions.
In the US, this may result in widespread displacement as large cities such as New York City and Miami will no longer be able to support such high populations (without dramatic and costly measures put in place). Tourism – which provides many jobs and in some coastal areas makes up almost the entire economy – will be significantly affected.
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Displacement of human populations in coastal areas around the world caused by rising sea levels, climate change and global warming will also affect the US indirectly. Countries with fewer resources to protect their citizens from the effects of sea level rise may face mass migration – as is already the case in places such as Bangladesh.
Economic disruption caused by global warming will have a similar impact, as well as reducing economic security for all countries in a globalized economy.
In light of the global scale of the problem of climate change – and the greater share of responsibility for global warming by wealthy industrial countries – it is essential that efforts are combined now and for the rest of this century.
How Can We Respond to Rising Sea Levels and Climate Change?
One of the most important things we can do to combat rising sea levels and climate change is to drastically reduce global warming. This is the leading cause of climate change and the main factor contributing to sea level rise.
Embracing clean technologies is part of the solution to tackle global warming. The US is a world-leader in innovation, with companies such as BHE Renewables, Next Era Energy, Cyprus Creek Renewables and Avangrid Renewables developing effective means of reducing our use of fossil fuels and bringing them to the market.
Recording, analyzing and reporting the latest data – as the VIMS researchers show – is also crucial to helping us protect coastal areas from the effects of sea level rise.
Companies such as UrbanFootprint, a technology business based in Berkeley, California, are harnessing the power of computing and big data to provide a resilience tool designed to help keep coastal areas safe.
References and Further Reading
Boon, J., Mitchell, M., Loftis, J. D., Malmquist, D. M. (2018) Anthropocene Sea Level Change: A History of Recent Trends Observed in the U.S. East, Gulf, and West Coast Regions. [Online] Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Available at: https://doi.org/10.21220/V5T17T (Accessed on 2 April 2020).
Central Intelligence Agency (2019) The World Factbook: Coastline. [Online] Central Intelligence Agency. Available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/fields/282.html (Accessed on 2 April 2020).
Cuffari, B. (2020) California’s Largest Geothermal Power Plant. [Online] AZO Cleantech. Available at: https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=1066 (Accessed on 2 April 2020).
Gornitz, V., Couch, S., Hartig, E. K. (2001) Impacts of Sea Level Rise in the New York City Metropolitan Area. Global and Planetary Changes. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0921-8181(01)00150-3
Mengel, M., et al. (2016) Future Sea Level Rise Constrained by Observations and Long-Term Commitment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1500515113
Nobuo, M. (2013) Sea-level Rise Caused by Climate Change and its Implications for Society. Proceedings of the Japan Academy. Series B, Physical and Biological Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1500515113
Virginia Institute of Marine Science (2020) U.S. Sea-Level Report Cards. [Online] Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Available at: https://www.vims.edu/research/products/slrc/index.php (Accessed on 2 April 2020).