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Burdens of climate change: Sea level rise and the risk of isolation 

Researchers have uncovered alarming vulnerabilities in coastal communities, stemming from accelerating sea level rise. This phenomenon, primarily driven by global warming, poses a significant risk to these regions, with minority and disadvantaged populations facing the brunt of its impact.

The study, led by Professor Kelsea Best of The Ohio State University, sheds light on a critical aspect often overlooked in climate change assessments: the threat of isolation due to rising sea levels. 

The experts report that as flooding intensifies, disadvantaged populations will be the ones to experience some of the most severe burdens of climate change.

Disproportionate risk

A key finding of the research is the disproportionate risk faced by minority populations when sea levels rise above 4 feet. These groups are more likely to experience isolation, with their access to essential services like emergency care, schools, and grocery stores being severely disrupted. 

This risk is further compounded for renters and older adults, highlighting the intersection between historical social inequalities and climate change vulnerabilities.

Rethinking community risk assessment 

According to Professor Best, the first step in better characterizing these threats is changing how researchers assess community risk, as most studies measure this by exclusively determining impacts via direct flooding. But concentrating on this sole measurement neglects more complex aftereffects of sea level rise, such as isolation, and reinforces inequality in coastal areas, said Best. 

“We need to re-conceptualize how we measure who is burdened by sea level rise because there are so many ways that people might be burdened before their home is flooded.”

Multiple and cascading burdens 

“An estimated 20 million coastal residents in the U.S. will be at risk of inundation due to sea level rise (SLR) and/or storm surges by 2030, yet there is less evidence of how multiple and cascading burdens of SLR that are beyond direct inundation will affect disadvantaged populations,” wrote the study authors. 

Notably, because people need access to essential places like grocery stores, public schools, hospitals and fire stations, the researchers argue that an inability to reach these places impacts individuals just as negatively as if they were living in inundated homes themselves, and should be documented as such. 

Risk of isolation 

The researchers overlayed OpenStreetMap road network data with NOAA’s mean higher high water scenarios and recent census data. The analysis revealed that a group’s risk of isolation is intricately linked to the specific layout of road networks and the location of vital services in relation to where at-risk individuals live.

The research team found that Hispanic populations are often overrepresented in those at risk of isolation, beginning at 4 feet of sea level rise, while Black populations face similar risks after 6 feet. In contrast, white populations are underrepresented in these risk assessments. 

Professor Best emphasized the need for targeted adaptation resources and policies to support those historically marginalized, emphasizing that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is insufficient and exacerbates existing inequities.

A sobering timeline 

The study presents a sobering timeline for the onset of isolation risks in coastal communities. Through a comparison of two long-term sea level rise scenarios, the researchers found that the isolating effects could manifest as early as 2090. This timeline underscores the urgency of addressing climate change and implementing adaptive measures.

“This timeline matters from a planning and adaptation perspective,” said Professor Best. “Part of why we included the temporal piece is to say this issue would not be as much of a problem if we had urgent, aggressive mitigation.” 

“The effects of climate change are going to be further reaching and more cascading than might be directly obvious, and those effects are not going to be felt equitably. So we need to be thinking about those populations most at risk from the beginning and develop policies to support them.” 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications

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