The Effect of Socioeconomic Status on Damage Caused By Sea Level Rise
2018, High School, Prose
Humans rely on the ocean to live, but too much ocean could pose a threat to safety. The Global Mean Sea Level has risen by as much as 20 centimeters over the past century, and the rate that the sea level is rising is accelerating (Warne 2017). This increase can be attributed to many factors, some of which are naturally occurring and would likely have happened even without human interference. Other factors, however, are man made: climate change and global warming (Garrison and Ellis 2016). The effects of sea level rise are felt differently in different parts of the world, and are correlated to a region’s socioeconomic status. Consequently, to estimate the future effects of rising sea levels, scientists must consider not only data concerning the potential for damage due to sea level rise in a specific area, but also the socioeconomic status of its inhabitants.
It is important to note that some sea level change occurs naturally. Change in sea level can be attributed to a number of factors. The most dramatic sea level changes over the past 2,000 years have been caused by the movement of tectonic plates (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). Movement of tectonic plates on the seafloor causes a phenomenon called seafloor spreading. A smaller seafloor means there is less space for water to fill, so the water level rises. (The reverse can happen, too.) Sea level also changes naturally due to isostatic adjustment, which is when the seafloor sinks or rises based on how much accumulated matter — such as heavy ice, sediments, and lava — builds up on the seafloor (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). That takes up space, causing the water level to rise. The sea level also changes when large inland lakes are formed or destroyed. This process, known as eustatic sea level change, can trap water or release water that would otherwise run off into the ocean (Trujillo and Thurman 2017), altering the sea level. While all these processes — the movement of tectonic plates, isostatic adjustment, and eustatic sea level change — are important factors in sea level change, they are all processes that occur over long periods of time on the order of thousands or millions of years. None of these factors can explain why the sea level has risen so dramatically over the past century.
The current rate of sea level rise is faster than at any other time in the past 4,000 years (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). Various factors contribute to this, all of which can be related to climate change and global warming. Sea levels are now rising so rapidly because of the thermal expansion of ocean water, which is when the ocean absorbs heat trapped in the atmosphere, expands, takes up more space, and causes the sea level to rise. Since 1800 the global temperature has risen by one degree Celsius (Upton 2016). As the global temperature increases, so too does the heat absorbed by the ocean. The ocean absorbs more than 80% of the heat released by fossil fuel production and other human activities (Warne 2017). With fossil fuels still a major energy source in many countries throughout the world, sea level rise due to thermal expansion is a legitimate concern. Another reason for an increase in sea level is the melting of land ice (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). As global temperatures increase due to global warming, land ice such as mountain glaciers and ice sheets are melting at accelerated rates. The rate at which ice is thinning near the Antarctic coast has doubled since the 1990s (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). The water produced from melting land ice runs off into the oceans, contributing to sea level rise. As Greenland and the Antarctic Ice Sheets melt more, sea level rise is likely to increase even more.
Due to global warming, the sea level is predicted to continue rising in the future. Specifically, the sea level is projected to rise between 0.6 and 1.6 meters by 2100 (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we can expect the oceans to rise between 28 and 98 centimeters by 2100. That is enough to swamp many of the cities along the east coast of the United States. Even more dire estimates predict a sea level rise of 7 meters. This would be enough to submerge London (Upton 2016). With the potential to see a major sea level rise in the next century, it is important to consider the effects of a rising sea on human life.
Rising sea levels cause many hazards for humans and the ecosystems people rely on for their livelihoods. A rise in sea level can drown beaches and protective coastal wetlands, accelerate coastal erosion and inland flooding, alter coastal ecosystems, and increase the damage done by major storms (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). Coastal erosion is a major concern when facing rising sea levels. This is caused when pressure from storm surges pushes air and water into rock crevices on the coastline, causing the rocks to fracture from physical weathering. Sand, gravel, and rocks carried in ocean currents also contribute to weathering coastlines, as they break up the shoreline. Coastal erosion can also happen because ocean water dissolves minerals in rocks, which threatens areas with easily soluble coastal rocks like limestone (Garrison and Ellis 2016). As the sea level rises, more of the coastline will be exposed to ocean water, allowing more physical and chemical weathering of the coast to occur, and subsequently more coastal erosion. Another major threat that occurs because of rising sea levels is inland flooding. Areas below sea level are highly susceptible to inland flooding: as the sea level rises, more and more cities are finding themselves nearer the sea (Warne 2017).
Rising sea levels have caused an increase in storm intensity, hitting many coastal communities with devastating hurricanes and cyclones. Rising sea levels exacerbated Hurricane Sandy’s intensity in 2012 (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). The people bearing the greatest brunt of increased storm surges tend to be lower-income communities and those in poorer countries. Low-income residents in cities are more likely than the rich to utilize public transportation, so they are disproportionately affected when a storm hits and public transportation is shut down (Thead 2017). The majority of people who were stuck in New Orleans due to levee failure during Hurricane Katrina were poor. Even after making it out of the flooded parts of the city, they struggled to find affordable housing nearby (Worth 2015). Storms such as Hurricane Katrina cause distress and suffering for everyone in the area they hit, but the most severe, longest-lasting effects are on the poor.
In recent decades there have been efforts to address the effects of rising sea levels and prepare for potential inland flooding and storm surges. Flood zones in cities are expanding. Many cities in the United States are taking action to build rock breakwaters, storm walls, and levees (Thead 2017). The cities of New York and Boston have already developed Comprehensive Climate Resiliency Plans to address rising sea levels and how they will affect their cities. These studies take into account how rising sea levels will affect different parts of the city and how each neighborhood can address and prepare for this change. There is a disproportionate effect of sea level rise on different areas. Sea level rise is more severe in certain regions along the Atlantic coast, where certain areas have experienced sea level rise 3-4 times higher than the global average since 1950 (Trujillo and Thurman 2017). One city along the Atlantic coast has attempted to address this issue. Tybee Island, a barrier island near Savannah, Georgia, has seen a sea level rise of 10-11 inches since 1935. In response, the municipality developed a resilience plan that involved shoring up U.S. Highway 80, the road from the island to the mainland, and improving it to minimize traffic in case of emergency. Tybee Island also reinforced local wetlands to serve as natural barriers to inland flooding and prevent beach erosion (Thead 2017). Other parts of the world have also made attempts to address the seemingly imminent threat of a rising sea levels. CoastAdapt is a program in Australia that helps areas understand and prepare for cyclones, flooding, and other effects of rising sea levels (Thead 2017).
Wealthier countries and cities are increasingly prepared and able to face the difficulties of the storm surges of the future. Unfortunately, the kinds of resiliency plans that are being put in place by local and federal governments are not available everywhere. Rising sea levels are expected to cause heavier monsoons in countries in West Africa; India is likely to experience stronger cyclones (Vidal 2013). Not all of these places have the money or resources to develop resiliency programs to address the threats of rising sea levels. This could lead to devastating flooding, destruction, crop loss, and death. According to a study by Vidal, the number of people at risk of hunger due to sea level rise could climb by 10% or 20% by 2050 (2013).
Although rising sea levels pose a major threat to people of lower socioeconomic status, there are groups working to make resiliency programs more equitable. The Union of Concerned Scientists developed a hot-spot tool that takes into consideration both socioeconomic data and vulnerability to sea level rise. This helps draw attention to poorer communities that have an elevated level of vulnerability due to lower income and resource levels. It also establishes a National Climate Resilience Fund to support poor communities such as Orleans Parish, Louisiana, plan for flooding and storms as a result of rising sea level (Worth 2015). Although this is now only active in the United States, similar programs could help protect communities around the world from the devastating effects of rising sea levels on human lives.
Garrison, Tom, and Robert Ellis. Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science. 9th ed., Cengage Learning, 2016.
Thead, Erin A. “Sea Level Rise: Risk and Resilience in Coastal Cities.” Climate Institute, 12 Mar. 2017.
Trujillo, Alan P., and Harold V. Thurman. Essentials of Oceanography. 12th ed., Pearson, 2017: 320-322, 539-540.
Upton, John. “Study Reveals Stunning Acceleration of Sea Level Rise.” Climate Central, 22 Feb. 2016.
Vidal, John. “Climate Change Will Hit Poor Countries Hardest, Study Shows.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Sept. 2013.
Warne, Kennedy. “Sea Level Rise.” National Geographic, 7 Apr. 2017.
Worth, Pamela. “Where Climate Change Hits First and Worst.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015.
I chose to investigate how poorer communities are affected by rising sea levels because I feel that the problems poor communities face are often overlooked, and that is the case when it comes to climate change, too. I wanted to study how wealthier communities were addressing rising sea levels, and then note how poorer communities and poorer countries were unable to use the same strategies to prevent damage from rising sea levels because they lacked the resources and capital to do so. Climate change is an issue that I am passionate about because watching the disregard people have for our environment is upsetting and alarming to me. Ultimately, all people will feel some alterations in their lives because of climate change, but those who are most vulnerable are the poorest among us. I hope our leaders and our communities will be able to recognize who is most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change and act accordingly.