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Global Sea Level Rise Threatens the USA’s Pacific Coast

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Global Sea Level Rise Threatens the USA’s Pacific Coast

Sea level rise threatens countless communities throughout the United States. While the majority of focus has been placed on those within the Gulf -- including towns in Texas and Florida -- the West and East Coasts are also threatened. In reality, as ice masses along the poles melt, global sea level rise poses an issue for cities around the world. Not only are those in the most direct pathway of harm at risk, but so are the many regions high above ground, to which countless migrants will likely flock when their homes have washed away. The US’s NOAA -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- estimates as much as a foot increase worldwide over the next thousand years -- even if we adjust our emissions output. In her entry “Climate Change: Global Sea Level” Climate.gov’s Rebecca Lindsey writes that “based on new scenarios [from Church and White and the University of Hawaii] global sea level is very likely to rise at least 12 inches (0.3 meters) above 2000 levels by 2100 even on a low-emissions pathway.”  With high greenhouse gas emissions unmitigated, Lindsey writes that “sea level rise could be as high as 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) above 2000 levels by 2100,” devastating thousands of communities around the globe -- including those along the Pacific Coast of the United States. As Living Deep is based on an island in the middle of the Puget Sound, the risk to Washington State and the rest of the West Coast is particularly concerning to us. Thankfully, many state, local and national governments around the world have taken notice and attempted to mitigate the issue. Follow below to learn more about the specific threat of sea level rise along the Pacific Coast of the United States and how Western states are addressing potential devastation. In our follow-up article to this piece -- “West Coast Historic Buildings Threatened by Sea Level Rise” -- we will discuss the risks to historic sites along the Pacific Coast.

Understanding the Wide-Ranging Impacts of Global Sea Level Rise in Inhabited Coastal Areas

Human life, animal habitats and both local and national economic health could be harmed by this extreme sea level rise over the next several decades. In fact, writes Caitlin Dawson in the article “Sea level rise could reshape the United States, trigger migration inland” published by Science Daily, “in the US alone, 13 million people could be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels by 2100.” Damaging effects of this forced relocation could include “more competition for jobs, increased housing prices, and more pressure on infrastructure networks.” Quoting USC Computer Science Assistant Professor Bistra Dilkina, Dawson writes that “‘sea level rise will affect every county in the US, including inland areas.’” While these effects might seem like they are far in the future, Ben Pilkington, MSt writes in his article “Rising Sea Levels and the Effect on the US Coastline” for AZO CleanTech that many coastal cities around the world are already suffering -- including across the US. Pilkington writes that “in places like the Gulf Coast of the US, the historic city of Venice in Italy and coastal areas in Bangladesh, rising sea levels are already having seriously detrimental effects on people, wildlife and the ecosystems that support them.” 

He lists “higher risks of flooding and loss of life; declines in water quality, which has an impact on agriculture and local ecosystems; erosion of coastal areas; and inundation of low altitude coastal areas from the sea” as major threats to human health in these areas. Though threats to human life are most concerning and must be mitigated first, threats to our collective cultural heritage are also significant and will require intervention. Lovely for travel but terrifying when one considers the harms of climate change, many cultural heritage sites are located along the world’s coasts. Sandee LaMotte explains in her article “Climate change endangers dozens of World Heritage sites” for CNN. LaMotte writes that “because our ancestors often settled near water for both food and commerce, a good many are in coastal areas.” 

Sea Level Rise Along the Pacific Coast

While the top twenty-five cities most immediately and heavily threatened by sea level rise within the United States are all along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the Pacific Coast is also at severe risk, particularly in Northern California, Oregon and Washington State. The National Academy of Sciences brief “Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future” notes that “any significant sea-level rise will pose enormous risks to the valuable infrastructure, development, and wetlands that line much of the 1,600 mile shoreline of California, Oregon, and Washington.” The August 2020 report “What Threat Does Sea-Level Rise Pose to California?” released by the LAO estimates “the magnitude of sea‑level rise (SLR) in California could be at least half of one foot in 2030 and as much as seven feet by 2100,” with San Francisco most at risk. 

SeaLevelRise.org notes in their brief “Oregon’s Sea Level is Rising” that “despite being relatively stable for the last decade, scientists now forecast that in the next 16 years, the sea level around Oregon will rise as much as 6 inches.” This amount is estimated due to “faster rates of ice melt3 and increased thermal expansion.” Kristy Dahl writes in the article “Sea Level Rise Will Make Oregon’s Existing Flooding Problems Worse” for the Union of Concerned Scientists Blog that “small but significant areas within many of Oregon’s idyllic coastal towns–Coos Bay and Tillamook, for example–are also at risk of chronic inundation in the coming decades.” The Seattle Public Utilities brief “Projected Climate Changes” estimates “Seattle will experience 10 inches of sea-level rise by 2050, and 28 inches by 2100, and 47 inches by 2150,” with Puget Sound most at risk.

What to Expect as Atmospheric Conditions Alter in the Future

In his article “Changing Pacific Conditions Raise Sea Level Along U.S. West Coast” for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Alan Buis describes the threat and ways in which Oregonians, Californians and Washingtonians plan to address the issue. Bois writes that though “the region is better known for its wildfires, earthquakes, heat waves, and mudslides,” Oregonians, Washingtonians and Californians have “seen first-hand the effects of coastal erosion, beach loss, storm damage, and tidal flooding resulting from sea level rise.” Sadly, from the North to South, “in some locations, it’s a constant battle to hold back the sea.” Though a short reprieve during the 1990s lulled some residents into a sense of false security, “changing Pacific Ocean and atmospheric conditions have stirred up Earth’s largest ocean and redistributed its heat, piling up warm waters along U.S. western shores and raising sea level in the process.”

atmosphere condition changes

Today, “researchers are studying data from satellites and tide gauges.” Bluis writes that their intention is to learn “the difference between sea level changes caused by rising global temperatures and those due to naturally occurring cyclic processes.” Though Bluis notes that many coastal communities along the West Coast “are built at a certain elevation above sea level with...natural fluctuations in mind, they are not well-equipped to handle unpredicted tidal flooding or other natural disasters like winter storms.

Protecting Communities Against the Destructive Effects of Sea Level Rise

While the Federal Government has offered some support, Washington, Oregon and California have largely pursued sea level rise mitigation and disaster relief on their own. Some cities -- like Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco -- have conducted research and mitigation efforts of their own based on locally gleaned research. However, in the future it appears that each state might need to work jointly with the others. In their publication “DEFENDING OUR COASTLINE FROM RISING SEAS: DISCOVER HOW THE CSU IS WORKING TO MITIGATE THE THREAT OF SEA LEVEL RISE ON CALIFORNIA'S COASTAL LANDS” California State University faculty describe a few approaches they have developed to counteract sea level rise on the West Coast. 

Defending and Restoring Wetlands

coastal wetlands

One way in which to protect against the destructive effects of sea level rise is to replenish the natural barriers of our wetlands -- which have been built over and depleted consistently over the last hundred years. Students at Humboldt State University have begun searching for ways to “protect the marsh and explore the use of living shorelines, which are soft barriers made of natural material including vegetation, oyster reefs and the slope of the land.” Similarly, researchers at Cal State Long Beach have begun “researching how human activities and climate change impact the structure and function of wetlands.”

Engaging in Coping and Interventive Measures

interventive ways to protect against sea level rise

In her article “Rising Sea Level Effects, Projections, and Solutions” for The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo describes a few coast-wide solutions Oregon, Washington and California all plan to explore in coming years. Amadeo refers to both coping and interventive measures. The former includes coping solutions like “installing drainage systems and building up seawalls” and encouraging island populations to move elsewhere. The latter focuses on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, halting deforestation and sequestering carbon wherever possible. Unfortunately, these latter solutions must be undertaken globally to have significant effect. 

What Can I Do to Limit Sea Level Rise?

As Zita Sebesvari -- Head of Environmental Vulnerability and Ecosystem Services, United Nations University -- noted in a recent article for The Conversation, “sea level rise is inevitable – but what we do today can still prevent catastrophe for coastal regions.” Though we will not be able to stop sea level rise in its tracks, there are a few everyday steps concerned citizens can take to limit its effects and protect against severe and immediate damage to life and property. Advocating for and taking climate action is one way in which everyone can make a difference -- the first part of which is encouraging and engaging in education on sea level rise and climate change’s effects on the phenomena. 

ways to help reduce sea level rise

Reducing one’s own carbon footprint by making simple changes at home and lobbying local governments to reduce the community’s footprint can help enormously. Creating a local climate action plan -- supported by community and government members -- will organize and mobilize citizens of the community. For more tips on getting involved, read CleanEnergy.org’s brief “Four Ways Your Actions Can Help Combat Sea Level Rise.”

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