WATER WORLD: The Potential Implications of Sea Level Rise

One hundred thousand people, eight hundred square kilometers, and thirty three reef atolls comprise one country that will be underwater by the end of the century: Kiribati. A small island nation in the middle of the Pacific, Kiribati is extremely susceptible to climate induced sea level rise because of its low elevation. Its President, Anote Tong, has even stated to the New York Times, “according to the projections, within this century, the water will be higher than the highest point in our lands [1].” Higher sea levels have already made an impact. Many of the nation’s sea walls have been destroyed or eroded by the rising tides, allowing “water [to] rush in, rip apart a village, and drive the residents to higher ground [1].”Large portions of the country’s GDP are already being allocated to repairing areas from coastal flooding, but as the problem worsens their efforts will be negligible. With no other options, the people of Kiribati face a predicament: stay  and hope that the global climate situation will change, or leave the land, their homes, their lifestyle, and their culture in search of a new beginning somewhere else.


Kiribati is just one of many countries to be affected by sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. As many as six hundred and fifty million people in countries such as China, Vietnam, the Maldives, the Netherlands, the United States and more will be at risk if waters rise as expected. In a recent study by NASA, it was discovered that the Earth is “locked in” to at least three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, potentially more if mankind does not reduce its carbon emission rate soon [2]. The emission of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere traps heat, causing polar ice caps to melt, and adds a massive influx of water into the system. Furthermore, as temperatures increase, dark ocean waters will heat up, become less dense, and expand. This process, know as Thermal Expansion, is predicted to contribute to roughly half of the expected sea level rise, according to Dr. Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawaii.

While just three feet might seem insignificant, on the grand scale of things it will have a major impact on human civilization, particularly the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, thirty-nine percent of the nation’s population lives in Coastal Shoreline Counties, some of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise. Additionally, it was found by the U.S. Geological Survey that half of American coastlines are “at high or very high risk of impacts due to sea level rise [3].” Even Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has stated, “If sea levels were to rise even three feet, cities like Miami, New Orleans, California, and others could find themselves underwater.

But what are the costs associated with this global phenomenon? As sea level waters rise, delicate ecosystems and habitats will be destroyed due to salt water intrusion, displacing and killing plant and animal species reliant on fresh water. Additionally, low lying infrastructure will flood, making roads, highways, and entire cities potentially inaccessible which could negatively impact millions of citizens in urban centers all along the coast. The White House recently tweeted that, “A sea level rise of just 1 foot could cost America $200 billion,” and the National Climate Assessment predicts, “more than $1 trillion of property and structures in the United States are at risk of inundation from sea level rise of two feet above current sea level [4].”

California especially will feel extensive consequences due to higher sea levels. The California Delta, an expansive estuary where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, includes some of the state’s most fertile farmland such as the Central Valley. Producing “1/4 of the Nation’s food,” in addition to being the source of two thirds of California’s groundwater and twenty percent of the Nation’s groundwater, the valley provides a pivotal role in the state and national infrastructure [5]. This area, however, is known for its structural depression and vulnerability to sea level rise. Over the years the land has subsided so that it is now below sea level, resulting its intricate system of levies that are vulnerable to overtopping and failure. Salt water inundation and destruction of farmland in this area alone would result in an annual loss of over $17 billion.

So what are we to do? Short-term solutions such as creating levies or building sea walls can mitigate the effects of sea level rise, but will do nothing to solve the overall problem. Our only resolution to keep this dilemma from worsening is to control the emission of greenhouse gases through the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris or COP 21. The international climate change talks begin on November 30th and will hopefully result in binding political action (unlike previous conferences in Kyoto and Copenhagen). Although the outlook may seem grim, we still have a chance. Student groups such as Fossil Free Stanford and others in colleges across the country are rallying together to convince their respective administrations to divest fossil fuels for greener alternatives. While this might just be a small step, it is a necessary one to change public opinion, create tangible action, and prevent the tides from rising so that we may preserve our community, society, and way of life.


  1. Morais, Betsy. “President Tong and His Disappearing Islands – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. N.p., 08 June 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/president-tong-and-his-disappearing-islands&gt;.
  2. Miller, Brandon. “Expert: We’re ‘locked In’ to 3-foot Sea Level Rise – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/27/us/nasa-rising-sea-levels/&gt;.
  3. Zhang, Keqi, Bruce C. Douglas, and Stephen P. Leatherman. “East Coast Storm Surges Provide Unique Climate Record.” Eos Trans. AGU Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 78.37 (1997): 389. Web.
  4. “FACT SHEET: Taking Action to Protect Communities and Reduce the Cost of Future Flood Disasters.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/Press_Releases/January_30_2015&gt;.
  5. “California’s Central Valley.” California’s Central Valley. US Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html&gt;.

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