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Seven Sinking Cities Around the World

Seven cities under threat of rising sea levels take measures to endure the fallout of climate change.

Rising sea level has become the new reality for coastal cities across the globe. Once seen only through projections and models, evidence calculating the increase in ocean volume—and its toll upon large cities along coastlines and island nations—is quickly adding legs to the issue, sharpening concerns about climate change and its effects.

No region is spared from this global tide-change, no matter their position on the cultural ladder. Here are seven cities that expect to be affected in the coming years by sea level rise as a result of climate change.

New York City

The world watched as Hurricane Sandy hurled an 11-foot storm surge into New York City, covering much of it in flood waters and shutting down utility services as a bitter autumn set in. The region-wide storm wound up as the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, resulting in ruined infrastructure, damaged homes, and 159 deaths.

But it may just be the start. Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that by the 2080s, global sea levels will have risen four feet—and that by 2100, "it will be five feet, plus or minus one foot." The projected rise means that the destruction caused by Sandy—a "one-500-year storm"—could easily occur as frequently as once every three years as high sea levels transform smaller storms into potent dangers.

Estimates from an additional study ordered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg project a 101 percent increase in the number of people affected by a rise in sea level by 2050 (a figure of more than 800,000 people). To combat the changing climate and encroaching sea, Bloomberg has outlined a $20 billion plan to build floodwalls, levees, and retrofit existing infrastructure to prepare for the future.

New York City port photo from Shutterstock

New Orleans

The costliest hurricane was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which accounted for $148 billion in total damages/costs while displacing 600,000 families and leaving 1,833 dead.

In response to the massive flooding seen in the aftermath of the Katrina, rapid construction of additional levee systems were put to shovel in preparation of future storms. The network of new safeguards got their first real test with Hurricane Isaac in 2012, proving successful in the select areas they protected. But even as new levees are built, assuring protection for a region that averages just three feet above sea-level is near impossible according to the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.

"Levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans... cannot provide absolute protection against overtopping or failure in extreme events," found a report issued in 2009. "If relocation is not feasible, an alternative would be to elevate the first floor of buildings to at least the 100-year flood level," it further stated. The State of Louisiana has a master plan in place to protect its coastal areas, but Tim Osborn of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that the plan falls short in light of more recent data. "The problem is it's a master plan for the restoration and conversation of a landscape that is moving downward at a faster rate than we realized when the plan was constructed," he said in an interview with The Lens.

Projections see the southeast region of Louisiana, including New Orleans, under 4.3 feet of water by 2100.

Photo via (cc) Flickr User mashleymorgan

Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta, with its population of 10 million-plus, is rapidly sinking into the Java Sea—a result of both climate change and a hallowing groundwater supply.

With more than 40 percent of the city below seal-level, "Jakarta is one of the worst sinking cities in the world," said JanJaap Birkman, a hydrologist with the Dutch water research institute Deltares. The Dutch are working with Jakarta officials to formulate a plan of action.

One of the issues in Jakarta is its rapid growth. High density has prompted the city to draw from its groundwater supply, degrading the foundation holding up the sprawl above-ground. The result is that much of Jakarta is sinking into the grip of a rising sea.

A 30-kilometer seawall built to hold back the sea is sinking into the softening ground, reducing its effectiveness and forcing the city to update protections as they slowly fail. Should the seawall break, wrote Atlantic Cities writer Nate Berg, "within 48 hours of a breach, a low-lying section of the city home to nearly 1 million people would be completely flooded. And all that seawater could flow into the city's fresh water supplies, magnifying the already intense drinking water issues."

Photo via (cc) Flickr User Yohanes Budiyanto


Some places learn to lean with the punches of climate change. Bangladesh, with a population of over 150 million, sees more that a quarter of its land mass inundated by rainfall every year.

Farmland in the nation has seen more than 150,000 hectares damaged by the encroachment of seawater pushed up by rainfall, forcing farmers to patch together rafts made of straw and layered with enough organic material (including manure) for plants to sink their roots into and grow in a flooded environment.

Unless the rise of sea level defies projections, Bangladesh will see over 30 percent of its currently limited farmland eliminated by 2100.

Photo via (cc) Flickr User Dougysme


Positioned at the mouth of the Yangtze River where it meets the East China Sea, Shanghai is one the world's more prominent shipping ports and centers of trade. But it's also in risk of losing ground to the rising sea, which threatens both its vital infrastructure and its main source of fresh water, the Qingcaosha Reservoir.

In a New York Times story on the subject, it is revealed that what separates Shanghai from drowning is an average 13 feet of land. Wetlands and natural buffers that previously kept the sea at bay have since been exchanged for towering skyscrapers, a feature of its commercial value that are weighing heavily on the city's foundation, leading to subsidence in ground soil. Shanghai is building itself into the ground.

Further research conducted by the East China Normal University suggested that sea level in the region will rise above world average over the next 20 years and that current defense mechanisms are the only line between high tides and the city. "Shanghai is safe now only because it is protected by sea defense systems," said Cheng Heqin, an expert from the Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Research. But the average ground level is already below the average high tidal level. This means if it weren't for the flood prevention walls, the city would already be beneath water at times of peaks time."

Research reveals that a breach of sea water into the city could also lead to a compromised Qingcoasha Reservoir, which supplies 70 percent of all fresh water to Shanghai's population of more than 23 million. Shanghai is spending billions to erect new protective measures.

Shanghai shoreline photo from Shutterstock


A series of atolls in the Indian Ocean, the island nation is one of the world's lowest-lying regions, averaging just over four feet above sea level. Modest projections put the rise of global sea levels at two to five feet over the next century, with some areas more affected than others. While some coastal cities are prepping for more extreme estimations, Maldives is preparing for the inevitable: it will fall under the waves.

At the 2013 Venice Biennale—an international gathering of artists from their respective nations—The Republic of the Maldives selected the theme of "The Portable Nation" to exhibit the dire ecological situation facing its population of more than 360,000. A two foot rise in sea level, which is projected near or at the end of the century, would result in the complete submergence of the nation. Displacement of the inhabitants would create a sizable concentration of climate refugees.

Photo via (cc) Flickr User timo_w2s

San Francisco

Those who can afford to do so are taking preemptive measures to combat a changing climate, none more novel than in the San Francisco Bay area. A recent report issued by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) found that of 12 marshlands surveyed using computer models that reflect updated sea level projections, 95 percent of the area they cover will be inundated by end-of-the-century high tides.

Fearing similar sea intrusion in the coming years, San Francisco has outlined its master plan to move the Pacific-straddling Great Highway along Ocean Beach away from the coast. The $350 million dollar plan calls for a redirection of traffic as the city allows "the surf to reclaim its turf." "We can't close our eyes to what's coming and it's definitely going to get worse and not better," said Benjamin Grant, manager at the Ocean Beach Master Plan for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR).

Statewide, the California State Senate recently passed the "Leno Bill." Named for Senator Mark Leno, who represents the San Francisco area, Senate Bill 461 authorizes $40 billion from Tidelands Oil revenue to be put towards coastal protection. It states that if sea levels were to rise four feet by end of the century, more than 480,000 Californians and $25 million in aquaculture would be at risk.

Photo via (cc) Flickr User dbaron

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