Unpredictable, Rising Sea Levels

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Unpredictable, Rising Sea Levels

Rising sea levels could reshape countries and trigger mass-scale human migration.

Key Insight

We’re getting better at understanding how ice sheets and sea levels change over time. This year, there will be more focus on trying to measure and interpret the rate of change.

Why It Matters

Rising sea levels could reshape countries and trigger mass-scale human migration.

Examples

Last year’s historic floods ruined millions of acres of farmland, while coastal flooding wreaked havoc in Alabama and Mississippi. Blame warming temperatures. Scientists are developing new methods and models to understand changing sea levels, and artificial intelligence may help predict sea level rise and new human migration patterns.

Researchers at the University of Southern California built a machine learning model that shows a ripple effect across the United States: As sea levels rise, people will move to land-locked urban centers such as Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Denver, and Las Vegas, and rural Midwestern areas will see a disproportionately large influx of people relative to their smaller local populations.

What’s Next

The federal Global Change Research Program predicts that we’ll continue to experience heavier rainfall in the Northeastern United States and around the globe. We’ll see sea levels continue to rise in the next century, perhaps by as much as eight feet. (Almost half of the 8-inch increase since 1900 occurred in just the last 25 years.)

Meanwhile, earlier spring snowmelt and reduced snowpack will lead to chronic, long-term drought. Glaciers around the world are melting at alarming rates—but trying to predict how quickly large chunks will slide into the oceans has proven challenging for researchers. One of the research missions kicking off in 2019 will take 100 scientists to the Thwaites Glacier, where they will learn more about melting ice from Antarctica and how soon it could increase sea levels to a high enough point that coastal areas—Manhattan included—could be threatened.

To protect from future flooding, the San Francisco International Airport plans to construct a $587 million, 10-mile-long wall. In New York, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying how to build a six-mile-long barrier to protect the city from floodwaters during future storms.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast of the United States are experiencing some of the world’s fastest rates of sea level rise. The group estimates that rising sea levels will put more than 300,000 coastal homes and 14,000 commercial properties at risk by 2045, and by the end of the century, more than $1 trillion worth of property could be impacted.

Impact

It is difficult to overstate how significantly rising sea levels will impact human and animal migration, our global supply of food, and our ability to move around. Insurers, city planners, businesses with global supply chains, and any business that relies on or provides logistics should be monitoring this trend carefully.

Watchlist

British-American International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, Columbia University, NASA, NOAA, Union of Concerned Scientists, United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.