What climate change and sea level rise will do to American cities

·Senior Climate Editor
·3-min read

The space center in Houston surrounded by a moat; the famous beach in Santa Monica, Calif., completely submerged; a former sports stadium in Washington, D.C., turned into a bathtub — these are just some of the startling images of the future in America’s largest cities without action to limit climate change, according to new research by Climate Central, a research and communications nonprofit.

Because of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, average global temperatures have already risen 1.2° Celsius (2.2° Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial era, but as glaciers and polar ice caps melt, there is a decades-long lag for sea level rise. So a team of researchers from Climate Central projected how much the waters will rise if the world reaches only 1.5°C of warming, which is the goal world leaders set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Hover over and click/hold slider for before and after:

But even limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C will result in flooding in and around some key sites. Santa Monica, for example, will lose its beach at 1.5°C of warming, once sea level rise has caught up. The projections also show how much more the tide will rise in the heart of some of the world’s largest cities and most famous sites if that warming is doubled, which will happen within 100 years if nations take no action to combat climate change.

“We’re expecting, based on our current warming track, to reach something close to 3°C this century,” said Peter Girard, communications director at Climate Central. “It will take a long time for the seas to rise to match that temperature. It may be centuries in the future, but we can understand with relative precision where it will eventually settle.”

And that place will be unsettling to many. Whether it’s an international landmark like London’s Buckingham Palace or a more obscure site like the Texas Energy Museum being underwater, the images of city streets turned to rivers and once-inhabitable buildings sticking out of the water like piers are a striking warning of what may be to come.

Of course, in reality these buildings aren’t even necessarily going to be there if the world breaches 2°C of warming. Long before an area is actually underwater, it will face regular flooding from heavy rainfalls and storm surges — which are also becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change. Buckingham Palace in London and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, D.C., will have to be abandoned due to rising waters unless dramatic action is taken to save them.

Even though the nation’s capital and other U.S. cities such as Philadelphia included in the study aren’t on the coastline, they are connected to the ocean by rivers, and their riverfront areas are projected to face much higher water levels.

The consequences of sea level rise will fall hardest in the developing world, where huge populations live in large coastal cities. According to a paper published on Oct. 11 in the journal Environmental Research Letters by the Climate Central researchers behind the project, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level and warming reaches 4°C, “50 major cities, mostly in Asia, would need to defend against globally unprecedented levels of exposure, if feasible, or face partial to near-total extant area losses.”

A major inflection point in the effort to prevent such catastrophic climate change is approaching when the successor to the Paris agreement is negotiated in early November in Glasgow, Scotland. Currently, nations have not pledged enough emissions cuts or climate finance to avert the warming scenarios that Climate Central explored, but the organization’s hope is to help spur more aggressive action.

“One of the opportunities to make decisions at an international level is coming up in Glasgow, and hopefully this work by visualizing the stakes contributing to a positive outcome,” Girard said.

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