Sea-level rise may be the most tangible aspect of climate change, something we can immediately see and document. Water expands as it warms, contributing to rising seas, and melting glaciers lead to higher sea levels, too. Research suggests that by 2100, sea levels will rise between 2 and 5.2 feet. I decided to found an organization that would embark on an expedition tracing 28,000 miles along the Atlantic coastline to see firsthand what changes were happening to coastal communities across the world. After consultation with climate scientists, co-founders Tim Bromfield, Will Lorimer and I plotted our route following the three-foot contour line around the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. In effect, we were tracing what might be the ocean’s new coastline in 2100 and exploring what stands to be lost if sea levels continue to rise. The expedition and teaching organization called Atlantic Rising took us to 21 countries in 15 months.
One of the first countries on our route was Mauritania in West Africa, where the Banc d’Arguin National Park stretches along much of the coastline. It is a vast, sandy flatland where the Sahara meets the Atlantic that’s home to a few isolated fishing communities and is the stopping point for millions of migratory birds each year. Some birds come to the park to refuel, feeding on fish living among the sea grasses in the shallow water. For others such as spoonbills—long-legged wading birds with distinctive paddle-shaped bills—this is their breeding ground, and they build their nests on the park’s small islands. These nests are increasingly being washed away. On one island, Nair, which has been reduced in size by half over the last 10 years, ornithologists working in the park are trying to protect the bird population by building nesting platforms a few feet high where the birds’ eggs will be protected from the rising tide
It’s even harder for the local fishing communities to adapt to rising tides. Buildings are washed out to sea, and sea grass growth is impeded, which in turns affects the fish population. For these fishermen, an already marginal existence is becoming increasingly more difficult. Antonio Araujo, director of the Fondation Internationale du Banc d’Arguin‘s conservation program, has noticed the sea level rise over the past decade he’s worked in the park. “The catastrophe that is approaching us is a reality now,” he says
He adds that bird conservation projects in the northern hemisphere are pointless without conservation of wintering grounds. “If the Banc is lost, 40%-50% of the waders of the Palaearctic [the largest of the world’s eight ecozones] will disappear,” Araujo says.
Coastlines in Crisis
As of 2007, some 634 million people (roughly one in 10) lived in low-elevation coastal areas—areas that are directly impacted by sea-level rise. This includes 13% of the world’s urban populations, and those city-dwelling masses have been on a steady rise since, particularly in Asia. A related report in the publication Environment and Urbanization noted that: “Both urban disasters and environmental hot spots are already located disproportionately in low-lying coastal areas. Climate change will increase the risk of both. In particular, rising sea levels will increase the risk of floods, and stronger tropical storms may further increase the flood risk. Low-income groups living on flood plains are especially vulnerable.”
In Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, an entire slum called West Point sprung up on a sand bank. About 60,000 people built homes on a piece of sand between the river mouth and the ocean. Thousands of people arrived in just a few months during the civil war fleeing fighting inland. There was simply nowhere else for them to go. In Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, a community has grown up in an area called Kroo Bay. Tin shacks cluster around a small river that flows into the Atlantic. It is crowded and unsanitary but cheap and conveniently located close to city center markets. Every year during the rainy season when the river is full and the tide rises, the whole community floods. Animals drown, and sometimes people do, too, and their possessions wash away. For areas like these, even a small sea-level rise has a devastating impact. Kroo Bay and West Point are just two poor communities on climate change’s front line.
Some capital cities are already below sea level. Guyana’s Georgetown and Banjul in The Gambia exist in this danger zone. The entire coastline of Guyana is protected by sea defenses, many in disrepair. In Banjul, seawater has to be pumped out of the city by decrepit machinery. Both nations are in desperate need of funding to improve their fortifications against the sea.
The indigenous Warao Indians in Venezuela (known as “the boat people”) live on water in the Orinoco Delta, building thatched-roofed homes on stilts, travelling by canoe and subsisting mainly on fish, wild fruits and vegetables. Lately they have spotted mangroves where the trees have never grown before. And every dry season, salt water encroaches further up the delta, making drinking water more difficult to access. Maria Cabrella who lives in the delta says: “Their entire culture is tied to the jungle and the river. The salt water coming means the end of Warao culture.”
Rising U.S. Waters
It is not just developing countries that will be devastated by sea-level rise. In Florida, the unique habitat of the Everglades is already being damaged and 60% of Everglades National Park is less than three feet above sea level. Larry Perez, the park’s science communications liaison officer, says: “Centimeters of relief mean everything here.”
Perez calls Cape Sable on the southernmost western shore of the Everglades “our canary in the coalmine.” He adds: “Whatever is destined to happen to other coastal Florida communities is likely to first occur at Cape Sable.” Studies show that the Cape’s coastline receded between 492 and 984 feet from 1928 to 2005. In nearby Miami, seawater bubbles up through drains in the street.
Sea-level rise is not uniform in its impact; it depends on the geography of local areas and people’s capacity to adapt. Ben Strauss is acting executive director of Climate Central, an organization that acts as a bridge between the scientific community and the public. He says: “Sea-level rise is almost unique among other impacts of climate change. The stakeholders are easy to identify. This is an effect with an address.”
Strauss believes that if it’s communicated correctly, sea-level rise could be a valuable tool for bringing home the realities of climate change. The U.S. has seen a one-foot sea-level rise over the last century. Rather than talking about effects far away or in the future, it’s a problem that is affecting the Atlantic coastline (and other coastlines) now. Understanding this might encourage people to act. Strauss says: “If we deploy carbon-negative technology we might have a chance of slowing down sea-level rise, but it is inevitable. It is underway.”