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Sea Levels Are Rising Faster Now Than in the Past 2,800 Years: Studies

By Nicole Levy | February 23, 2016 2:50pm
 A 20-foot rise in sea level would submerge large tracts of land in all five New York City boroughs.
A 20-foot rise in sea level would submerge large tracts of land in all five New York City boroughs.
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Climate Control

While New Yorkers worry about the ways in which residential and commercial developments, and streetcars, will affect the city's waterfront in the short term, they have rising sea levels to obsess about over the next few decades.

Oceans around the globe will rise as much as 4.3 feet by 2100, at a rate faster than they have in the past 2,800 years, according to two different studies published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers attribute the increase in sea levels to rising temperatures driven by the burning of fossil fuels, which most scientist agree emits heat-trapping gases. 

One study, led by Rutgers earth and planetary sciences professor Robert Kopp, estimated that sea levels will rise 22 to 52 inches by 2100 if they continue at their current rate. A second study, overseen by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, arrived at a similar conclusion: sea levels will climb three to four feet. (Until the world industrialized in the 1880s, oceans rose no more than 1 to 1.5 inches a century, and they would cycle between rising and falling.)

Those estimates aren't quite as extreme as one published last summer by Science Magazine, which examined the impact that 2 degrees of global warming would have on coastlines worldwide. The planet's warming was predicted to raise sea levels by at least 20 feet as early as 2200. Its effect on New York City shores can be seen in a map below, map built by the group Climate Control

2 °C Warming and Sea Level Rise

But it would take only another 1.5 feet rise in sea level to cause coastline communities expensive problems when it comes to storm surges, a Potsdam study co-author, Stefan Rahmstorf, told the Associated Press. New York City got a taste of that reality earlier this month, when a snow storm that hit offshore caused significant flooding in the Rockaways and other low-lying coastal areas. 

It was the "worst flood event for the New York City region" since Hurricane Sandy, Stevens Institute of Technology assistant professor Philip Orton told WNYC. 

The Rockaways aren't inevitably doomed though. 

Rising sea levels would be curbed, Kopp and his Rutgers team concluded, to 11 to 22 inches if nations enacted all the measures of the global climate change treaty negotiated in Paris last year.