Amid the climate crisis, seas are rising faster than any other time in the past 3,000 years. How much faster and higher they rise is up to us, though.
A new study and visual analysis from nonprofit research group Climate Central shows how stark those choices are. Photorealistic visuals illustrate what would happen in 50 major coastal cities if the world follow through on its inadequate climate pledges versus steep emissions cuts needed to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.
If the world fails to do the latter, the land that 10% of the Earth’s population calls home lives would need to implement “globally unprecedented” changes to cope with rising seas or risk being swallowed by the ocean. To say that is one thing. To visualise it so starkly, though, is another. Take a tour of the places most vulnerable to sea level rise and the choices we have if we limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius versus the current trajectory of more than 3 degrees Celsius.
Dubai Burj Khalifa
Created in collaboration with researchers at Princeton University and Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the striking new project show that some parts of the world could be completely wiped out without major emissions reductions. But by meeting the most ambitious goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world could reduce losses from sea level rise by roughly half.
The report also looks at the long-term prospects for the world’s coasts. The processes rising temperatures have set in motion will take centuries to play out. Even cutting all emissions to zero tomorrow would still mean there’s enough warming in the climate system to expand seawater and melt more ice to raise sea levels by 1.9 metres over the next few centuries. That will put more and more people below the high tide line.
New York Statue of Liberty National Monument
If world leaders don’t sharply curb greenhouse gas pollution and instead allow the planet to warm by 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the monument surrounding the Statue of Liberty in New York City could be completely underwater. Rising seas would also impact 2.4 million people in the city.
Averting that level of warming won’t mean everything is OK, though. There are currently around 460,000 people living at or below the current high tide mark in the city. The report shows that number would rise to 830,000 people at just 2.7 degrees Celsius of heating above preindustrial levels. But limiting warming can allow us to slow the rate of rise and find ways to adapt with more water.
Houston Space Centre
The maps show that in addition to the threat to human life, infrastructure will be put at risk due to sea level rise. If emissions continue apace, the land surrounding the Houston Space Centre could be completely inundated.
NASA is implementing plans to handle climate threats to its space centres, including sea level rise and other risks like hurricanes. But the more carbon emissions the world spews out, the higher the danger will be.
Paradise Island, Bahamas
The visualisation above shows the prospects for Paradise Island, which lies just offshore from New Providence Island in the Bahamas. The popular tourist destination is home to more than 16,000 people. But it’s far from the only island location under serious threat.
The report shows that many small island nations are at risk of near-total land loss due to the climate crisis. Among them are the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Cayman Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Cocos Islands, and the Bahamas. At 5.4 degrees Celsius of warming, each of these regions is at risk of 90% of their current populations’ homes being completely inundated. Even with a temperature rise of “just” 2.7 degrees Celsius, more than 60% of residents are in danger.
Some places will be completely underwater at 5.4 degrees Celsius of heating. That level of warming would imperil all 13 million of Mumbai’s residents. The visualisation above shows that’s the potential fate of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai, India.
The report shows that 11 million people in the city live below the current high tide line — a warning that adaptation measures are urgently needed. Previous studies have come up with similar findings: a major United Nations climate report from August showed that sea level is expected to rise by nearly 1 metre in and around Mumbai by 2050.
Lagos is a burgeoning African megacity that’s dangerously prone to sea level rise. The findings show up to 8.7 million people could be exposed to flooding in Nigeria if emissions aren’t drawn down. Outlying barrier islands as well as the city centre would disappear under the water.
Nigeria and other developing countries are in a particularly vulnerable space because they lack the funds to adapt to sea level rise. Many of those same countries have also done relatively little to cause the climate crisis, which will be a big point of discussion at upcoming climate talks.
Hong Kong is on a path to be completely reshaped by sea level rise. This video shows what would happen to the city’s Victoria Harbour waterfront if the world’s emissions patterns are allowed to continue.
Climate Central’s analysis shows that China is where sea level rise could have the greatest impact. At 5.4 degrees Celsius of warming, the report shows that 43 million people in China would be imperilled by 2100. That includes 14 million in Hong Kong alone.
Another 200 million live on land that will be at risk in the centuries to come. Yet the authors also found that if the world does make rapid cuts to greenhouse gas pollution, China could see a major reduction in risk. Under the 2.7-degree-Celsius scenario, some 50 million people would be spared when looking at the multi-century timescale.