300 million face annual coastline flooding by 2050
PARIS (AFP) — Coastal areas currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable by 2050 to flooding made worse by climate change, no matter how aggressively humanity curbs carbon emissions, scientists said Tuesday.
By mid-century and beyond, however, choices made today will determine whether Earth’s coastlines remain recognizable to future generations, they reported in the journal Nature Communications. Destructive storm surges fueled by increasingly powerful cyclones and rising seas will hit Asia hardest, according to the study.
More than two-thirds of the populations at risk are in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.
Using a form of artificial intelligence known as neural networks, the new research corrects ground elevation data that has up to now vastly underestimated the extent to which coastal zones are subject to flooding during high tide or major storms.
“Sea-level projections have not changed,” co-author Ben Strauss, chief scientist and CEO of Climate Central, a US-based non-profit research group, told AFP.
“But when we use our new elevation data, we find far more people living in vulnerable areas that we previously understood.”
With the global population set to increase two billion by 2050 and another billion by 2100 — mostly in coastal megacities — even greater numbers of people will be forced to adapt or move out of harm’s way. Already today, there are more than 100 million people living below high tide levels, the study found.
Some are protected by dikes and levees, most are not.
Rising tides, sinking cities
“Climate change has the potential to reshape cities, economies, coastlines and entire global regions within our lifetime,” said lead author and Climate Central scientist Scott Kulp.
“As the tideline rises higher than the ground people call home, nations will increasingly confront questions about whether, how much and how long coastal defenses can protect them.”
Several factors conspire to threaten populations living within a few meters of sea level.
One is the expansion of water as it warms and, more recently, ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica that have shed more than 430 billion tonnes per year over the last decade.
Since 2006, the waterline has gone up nearly four millimeters a year, a pace that could increase 100-fold going into the 22nd century if carbon emissions continue unabated, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a major report last month.
If global warming is capped below two degrees Celsius — the cornerstone goal of the Paris climate treaty — sea level is projected to rise about half-a-meter by 2100.
At current rates of carbon pollution however, the increase would be nearly twice as much.
A second ingredient is tropical storms — typhoons, cyclones or hurricanes — amplified by a warming atmosphere. “It doesn’t take a big rise in sea level to lead to catastrophic problems,” said Bruce Glavovic, a professor at Massey University in New Zealand who was not involved in the study.