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A non-wonk guide to sea level rise

May 7, 2012 | 1:30 am | , Solutions Associate

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The oceans are rising. It’s scary. It’s important. But it’s not complicated.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear five experts testify before Congress on sea level rise and its impacts on the United States. This is what I learned:

  1. Sea levels are rising today. It’s not a problem for the future. It’s happening now.
  2. Here’s why global warming leads to sea level rise: First, glaciers melt and add extra water to the oceans.
  3. Second, water expands when it gets warmer, so that means the oceans get bigger.
  4. On average, sea levels have increased 8 inches in the past 130 years.

Right now, you’d be forgiven if you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal if the oceans rise by 8 inches?” Let me put it to you this way: Imagine you had to drive through 8 inches of water on your daily commute. Not so great, right?

© 2012 350.org/Flickr cc by nc sa 2.0

Could sea level rise put our coastal cities underwater? Eventually … but not right away. Right now, we’re more worried about storms. Because of that extra 8 inches, a heavy rainstorm can turn a backyard into a lake or turn a city street into a river.

And 8 inches is only the beginning. Within the next few decades, scientists predict sea levels could rise by another foot or more.

From Alaska to Florida, sea level rise threatens the everyday life of millions of Americans. According to one analysis, more than 5 million people live less than 4 feet above high tide. And as the climate warms, they will be in ever increasing danger from coastal flooding.

To see what sea level rise looks like today, look no further than Norfolk, Virginia – a coastal city that never used to flood unless there was a very serious storm. Yet today, a small rainstorm or high tide brings water right up to the doorstep of Norfolk’s residents.

Or look at New York City, where more than 200,000 residents live within the federally designated flood zone. And you don’t have to go back very far to find the last time extreme weather flipped life in the Big Apple upside down. Just last August, Hurricane Irene forced New York’s first mandatory evacuation, which affected 370,000 New Yorkers. What would happen to New York if the water rose by a foot?

Sea level rise isn’t a problem for tomorrow. It is here today. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be complicated. Even the most basic understanding of sea level rise will help you and your community prepare for its impacts.

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