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Sinking cities on U.S. coast face a double threat as sea levels rise

Remember those cherished beach trips from your childhood? Those memories may be underwater by 2050 if we don’t take action on climate change. Researchers from the Virginia Tech National Security Institute have released a study with a stark warning: sea levels could rise by a whole foot, swallowing up our beaches. 

To make matters worse, some coasts are actually sinking on their own. Unfortunately, this sinking of land, called subsidence, isn’t always considered in planning for our cities and coasts.

Climate change and sinking cities

Our warming planet is greatly contributing to the rising sea levels. Melting ice caps and glaciers add more water to the oceans, pushing sea levels up. On top of that, as the oceans get warmer, the water itself expands, making sea levels rise even further.

The recent study has painted a concerning picture for many U.S. coastal cities. By 2050, these cities could lose an extra chunk of land the size of Los Angeles or Chicago due to flooding on top of rising sea levels in 32 major coastal cities.

In these cities, the ground is sinking at the same time the ocean is rising, squeezing coastal communities from both sides. This is projected to affect up to 273,000 people.

Varying impacts across country

The impact of sea level rise and land subsidence varies across the country:

Atlantic Coast

Eleven cities here could see between 773 and 951 km² of additional land flooded, impacting up to 263,000 people and 163,000 properties. Miami, with its average elevation of less than 2 meters above sea level, is particularly at risk.

Gulf Coast

This region could face between 528 and 826 km² of new flooding areas, affecting between 110,000 and 225,000 people and up to 109,000 properties. Cities like New Orleans already grapple with high-tide flooding due to below-sea-level areas.

Pacific Coast 

Cities here are comparatively better off, with a projected increase in flooded areas of just 20 to 40 km², affecting 6,000 to 30,000 people and 3,000 to 15,000 properties.

Economic disparities and sinking cities

Climate change and the resulting sea level rise do not affect all communities equally. People who have less money and haven’t had a fair shot in life are often stuck in areas more likely to be flooded. 

It’s not just bad luck, either. Past unfair housing practices pushed these communities into riskier zones. These families can’t necessarily bounce back from disasters like wealthier folks can. 

Deprived communities need a helping hand, not just to fix the immediate damage, but to build a future where they will be safe. This is about fairness and making sure everyone has a chance to weather the storm, literally and figuratively.

Sustainable adaptation to prevent sinking cities

The experts propose working with nature, restoring wetlands and oyster reefs that act like natural shields against rising seas. 

“Ecosystems act as natural buffers against storm surges and help in sediment accumulation, which can mitigate the effects of land subsidence,” said study lead author Leonard Ohenhen from Virginia Tech. These green guardians not only absorb storm surges but also become havens for wildlife, making our coasts healthier places.

The plan goes beyond just waves, though. The experts acknowledge that human actions like draining groundwater can make coasts sink lower. By being smarter about how much water we use and how we develop land, we can prevent this from happening. 

The key is planning our cities carefully. This means building on higher ground, making sure buildings can withstand floods, and even designing landscapes to channel floodwaters away from homes and businesses.

A unified call for action

Rising seas and sinking land are no longer distant worries, they are imminent threats to our communities. This report is a wake-up call. It’s time for leaders, planners, and everyone to join forces. 

We need to adapt and become more resilient in the face of this changing world. By working together, we can protect the cities we love and the people who live there from the rising tides of tomorrow.

‌The study is published in the journal Nature.


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