• Anna Mowris

Rising Sea Levels Will Completely Erase Cities By 2050

Many of the world’s largest cities are located on river estuaries, making cities directly vulnerable to rising sea levels. Cities like New York, New Orleans, and Miami in the United States, along with major cities in Asia, such as Bangkok, Shanghai, Singapore, Kolkata, and Mumbai, a tremendous investment will be needed for climate adaptation or relocating their citizens and businesses.



No city is immune to the effects of global warming, but a few cities are much more vulnerable than the rest. As sea levels continue to rise, low-lying coastal cities can expect more devastating floods that ruin buildings, destroy infrastructure, and claim lives.


Studies have shown that cities around the world could witness more than 6 feet of flooding by the year 2100. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that sea levels could rise by 10 to 12 feet if global emissions continue unabated. But these numbers are averages, meaning some areas would see much higher rises, while others would be less affected. In the worst-case climate scenarios, some cities might even disappear underwater completely.


Though cities are able to install new infrastructure and artificial barriers to protect themselves from climate change, time is running out and measures must be taken immediately.


New Orleans is one of the most vulnerable cities at the hands of climate change having never fully recovered from the catastrophic damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city stands on a river delta making it extremely vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise. Some areas lying 15 feet below sea level. Though wetlands have been able to shield New Orleans from storms in the past, that buffer has gradually been destroyed by human activity. Much of the city is already sinking. A 2016 NASA study found that certain parts of New Orleans are sinking at a rate of 2 inches per year, putting them on track to be underwater by 2100.


Similar to New Orleans, areas of Houston are also sinking at a rate of 2 inches per year. The main culprit being excessive groundwater pumping, which creates a change in pressure and volume that allows for the land to sink. Making the city much more susceptible to flooding like the kind experienced during Hurricane Harvey, which damaged nearly 135,000 homes and displaced around 30,000 people. Because Houston isn't a coastal city, it's unlikely to be affected by sea-level rise alone. But an increase in storms and hurricanes that they are experiencing at the hands of climate change - combined with its low elevation and sinking land - could cause parts of the city to be underwater in the future.



Miami is yet another city at risk of disappearing. Being referred to as "the poster child for a major city in big trouble,” by environmental author Jeff Goodell. The city's sea levels are already rising fast enough to damage both homes and roads. A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested that 12,000 homes in Miami Beach are in danger of chronic flooding within the next 30 years. Putting around $6.4 billion worth of property at risk — the most of any coastal community that has been examined. A 2016 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change also identified Miami residents to be at-risk. Miami residents and residents within surrounding counties could account for one out of every four people affected by sea-level rise in the US between 2010 and 2100. Even if seas were to only rise by the most conservative estimates - which is unlikely - the city will have to raise its structures to stay above water. Jeff Goodell stating, "Miami as we know it today — there's virtually no scenario under which you can imagine it existing at the end of the century.”


Atlantic City is yet another victim of global warming, being one of the US’ most vulnerable areas when it comes to flooding. The city was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which left around 70-80% of the city underwater at the height of the storm. In some places, residents had to wade through water as deep as 8 feet. Research from Climate Central suggests that 37,000 people are at risk of coastal flooding in Atlantic City in the next century.

Charleston is even more vulnerable to flooding than Atlantic City, with around 64,000 of its residents at risk of coastal flooding in the next 100 years. More than a decade ago, the Charleston City Paper predicted that the city could become "a half-drowned ghost town" by 2050. Under 12 feet of sea-level rise, the paper reported, around 77% of the Charleston could be underwater.


New York City is another city in desperate need of plans for climate adaptation, Scientists singling out Queens as the New York City borough with the most land at risk of flooding. Data from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that more than 2,700 homes, or nearly 7,200 residents, in Queens could experience chronic flooding by 2045. If that happens, the borough could end up with $1.2 billion in property damage in less than 30 years.


Although Boston may not be entirely submerged by 2100, the city as we know it will cease to exist. A 2016 Zillow report found that 1 out of 6 homes in Boston could be underwater by 2100. This report using NOAA's conservative estimates (6 feet of sea-level rise). NOAA has also said there's a near-certain likelihood that Boston will see at least one flood above 6 feet by 2050.



Lastly, Virginia Beach is in utter need of climate adaptation, sitting at the intersection of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. As sea levels rise, both bodies of water threaten to inundate the city during a major storm. The city is already witnessing one of the fastest rates of sea-level rise on the East Coast if you factor in both rising water levels and sinking land. In its most extreme projections, NOAA estimates that Virginia Beach could see up to 12 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. We already have a glimpse of what the area might look like during a disaster: In 2018, Hurricane Florence briefly transformed Virginia Beach into a water-soaked wasteland.


Rising sea levels will completely decimate major cities in the US leaving civilians homeless or in worse cases, killing thousands. These cities must make plans for climate adaptation or relocation of businesses and citizens, or the country as we know will be lost. To learn more about this topic and what we can do to prevent these catastrophic losses of some of our countries most beloved cities register below for our ESGx event, Resilient Cities: Funding Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise on July 21st.



On July 21st, ESGX will host “Resilient Cities: Funding Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise” to discuss:

  1. What choices can cities make to become more resilient to rising sea levels?

  2. How should cities prioritize "grey" infrastructure, "green" infrastructure, and behavior change?

  3. How can you fund these initiatives?

  4. What are lessons from communities closest to seas, lakes, and rivers?

Register here for the free event


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