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Rising Sea Levels

Rising Sea Levels


Rising sea levels threaten livelihoods and homes of millions living in coastal areas of the globe.

Changing sea levels can be attributed to many different causes but climate change is now thought to be the prevailing driver behind the increase in water levels.

Through climate change, the planet is warming and this warming results in the expansion of the volume of the water in the ocean. The chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri said in 2007 that a two-degree rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels would cause seas to rise by 0.4 to 1.4 meters by thermal expansion alone.

Additionally, this warming melts ice sheets and glaciers which adds to the total amount of water in the world’s oceans. The 2007 IPCC report suggested that sea levels could rise by 19 to 59 cm by 2100, depending on different scenarios for future greenhouse gas emissions.

It is important to note though that some coastal areas will be disproportionately affected more by the rising sea levels due to the behavior of ocean currents.

More recent scientific assessments suggest a larger increase in sea levels is likely, making adaption to this issue all the more urgent.

Rising sea levels have a multitude of effects. To the land of coastal areas, there is a heightened risk of erosion and floods, damaging manmade infrastructure and delicate coastal ecosystems. The extra flooding associated threatens human health with water-borne diseases. Additionally, the rising sea water contaminates agricultural land and drinking water.

Small islands face the especially daunting threat of disappearing into the sea. Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall islands have already appealed to intergovernmental organizations for assistance. In May 2016, the Guardian reported that five uninhabited islands of the Solomon Islands have already disappeared.

Low-lying coastal areas of countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam are also face considerable risk. One-in-ten of all people on Earth — some 634 million — live less than ten meters above sea level putting them under threat. It is important to note though that some coastal areas will be disproportionately affected more by the rising sea levels due to the nature of ocean currents.


The primary method by which countries have coped with rising sea levels is the construction of sea defenses such as dams and other barriers. Coastal armoring is also used to raise and fix shorelines in place. This usually comes in the form of seawalls or levees.

Other methods require the change of human construction. Infrastructure could be designed to be elevated or buoyant to deal with rising waters.

Forming and nurturing coastal biomes is also a good protection against rising sea water. Ecosystems such as wetlands and mangrove forests protect shorelines from erosion.

Unfortunately, solutions in particularly vulnerable areas require well-managed migrations and early-warning flood systems to help people threatened by rising sea levels.

Ultimately, for people living in some very low-lying places such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, migration to other countries may be the only way to adapt.

Over the long term, scientists warn that the only way to limit sea level rise will be to drastically reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet although some argue that there has been already been significant irreversible damage.

The study of sea levels is far from certain and journalists need to be cautious about reporting unsubstantiated claims.

In 2007, a British judge ruled that US vice-president Al Gore was scientifically inaccurate when he claimed in the film An Inconvenient Truth that melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland would cause a sea level rise of up to 7 meters in the near future.

Journalists should take care to assess the quality of any claims about the extent of sea level rise. Has the research been published in a peer-reviewed journal? What do independent scientists who also study sea levels say?

It is also important to remember that sea levels can rise for reasons unconnected to climate change, such as vertical land movements and changes in local weather conditions.

While reporting sea level rise, journalists can enhance stories by reporting on the everyday effects on the lives of those affected and their ways to adapt. Local adaptation strategies from one part of the world may be applicable in very different settings.

Large amounts of finance for adaptation should soon be flowing from developed to developing nations. Journalists should be familiar with this climate finance and understand how it can be accessed to fund adaptation projects.

Story angles include investigations of whether coastal planning has taken account of rising sea levels, what authorities are doing to adapt, and how insurance companies are responding to the risk.

A good source for journalists is the Many Strong Voices coalition, which focuses on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities in the Arctic and small island developing states.

Another tool for investigation is learning about Integrated Coastal Zone Management which is a resource on grappling with the multiple interconnected impacts of rising sea levels.

CASE STUDIES – Responses to rising tides
People in the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea, have often been portrayed in the media as the world’s first climate-change exiles, as it is feared that the islands will soon become uninhabitable.

Communities there have been struggling for years against rising seas. Waves are eroding the coastline, flooding vegetable gardens and destroying houses.

Already some of the islanders have migrated away from their homeland.

As journalist Greg Roberts reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, however, some people think that the islands are actually sinking, or that they are more prone to wave action because islanders destroyed protective coral reefs when using dynamite to fish.

For more examples of ways people are adapting to impacts of sea level rise, here is an article by Nabil Ahmed in Bangladesh.

Alliance of Small Island States
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2013 Report on Sea Levels
IPCC predictions of sea level rise according to different emissions scenarios
Interactive Map of Sea Level Changes

Surging Seas by Climate Central