6 June 2019

Rising Sea Levels Threaten the World’s Economic Centers

There is no disputing the fact that, since the beginning of the 20thcentury, sea levels have been on the rise. In fact, since the year 1900, sea levels have risen by 17 to 22 centimeters (6.5 to 8.5 inches).  Worse, the pace of the rise in sea levels has clearly accelerated in recent decades and is now near 30 cm (12 in) per century. Much of this increase in sea levels is the result of climate change, as rising global temperatures are resulting in a thermal expansion of seawater (water expands as its warms) and the melting of the vast ice sheets that cover Antarctica, Greenland and the parts of the world that are covered by glaciers.  For anyone living near the coastline around the world, the impact of rising sea levels is already clear to see.

While it is evident to everyone that sea levels are on the rise, there continues to be a great deal of debate over the future of sea levels.  While there is virtually no debate that sea levels will continue to rise, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how much they will rise.  On the conservative end, some recent studies have projected average sea level increases of 30 cm (12 in) by the year 2100, but this suggests that the pace of sea level rises will not continue to accelerate.  Even still, an increase of 30 cm would be threatening to many low-lying coastal regions around the world, particularly those exposed to major storms.  On the other hand, some more dramatic studies have projected that sea levels could rise by as much as 130 cm (51 in) by the end of this century.  Needless to say, if sea levels were to rise this much, hundreds of millions of people would likely be forced to flee coastal regions in all parts of the world.  Let’s take a region-by-region look at the potential impact of rising sea levels.

East Asia and the Pacific: As the region with the largest population and greatest economic output, the East Asia and Pacific region will play a major role in shaping the world for the remainder of the 21stcentury.  In fact, no region will come close to generating as much growth for the global economy as this region in the coming decades.  Unfortunately, as sea levels continue to rise, many coastal areas will find themselves at risk.  These include many coastal area of China, while both Shanghai and Hong Kong are at risk if sea levels rise at an accelerated peace.  Meanwhile, many of the key economic centers of Southeast Asia will also be at risk, including Singapore, Jakarta and the vast Mekong Delta.  Of course, many Pacific islands could disappear from the map if sea levels continue to rise.  As a result, tens of millions of people in East Asia and the Pacific are at risk from rising sea levels, a development that could alter the economic futures of the impacted regions.

South Asia: Another region that will play a major role in shaping the 21stcentury is South Asia, and here too, rising sea levels threaten huge numbers of people.  No region in the world is currently more at risk from rising sea levels than the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta, which encompasses most of the country of Bangladesh as well as much of the Indian state of West Bengal.  In fact, these two places have a combined population of 255 million, many of whom are in danger of being displaced by rising sea levels.  Worse, should sea level rises exceed forecasts, almost the entire country of Bangladesh could be wiped from the map, as could a large area of India’s coastline. 

Europe: Europe too faces many dangers from rising sea levels, with some parts of that region in particular trouble.  One part of Europe that has a great deal of experience dealing with coastal flooding is the Benelux, as large sections of the Netherlands and Belgium are at or below sea level.  Should sea levels rise too far, these countries’ existing defenses against the sea could prove insufficient.  Likewise, the region’s leading economic center, London, faces a growing threat of major flooding as sea levels rise.  Many low-lying areas along the coasts of the North and Baltic seas also are at risk, and these include some of Europe’s key economic centers. Finally, some areas of southern Europe also will also be endangered by rising sea levels, and they are less prepared for this challenge than their counterparts in the north.

North America: The world’s largest economy, the United States, is also at risk from rising sea levels.  In fact, many of the US’ leading economic centers on the East Coast, including New York, Washington and Boston, are all exposed the threat of flooding caused by rising sea levels.  Likewise, much of the state of Florida is at risk from rising sea levels, including its heavily populated coastal regions.  Worse, a large portion of the US state of Louisiana is threatened by rising sea levels and this could result in the loss of a large section of the southern part of that state.  Finally, as water temperatures rise, tropical storms could intensify, threatening to unleash even more powerful storms (and storm surges) against the East and South coasts of the United States.

Latin America: One region that has struggled of late is Latin America, as this region has generated little or no economic growth in recent years.  Now, some areas of that region face the threat of rising sea levels.  For example, much of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, the center of that country’s oil and tourism industries, is under threat.  At the same time, many islands in the Caribbean are in jeopardy should sea levels rise and tropical storms become more intense. In South America, major economic centers such as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Montevideo are all at risk should the rate of increase in sea levels continue to accelerate in the years ahead. 

Middle East and North Africa: A region that is already being severely impacted by changes to the climate and the environment is the Middle East and North Africa.  Worse, this is a region that is largely unprepared for the impact of rising sea levels. For example, many of the region’s leading economic centers are located along the shores of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and many of these centers are at risk from rising sea levels in that body of water.  Meanwhile, one of this region’s leading economic and agricultural centers is the Nile River Delta in Egypt, much of which will find itself submerged if sea levels continue to rise at their current pace.  Therefore, a region that has already been destabilized by the changing environment could face even more instability in the decades to come.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Finally, Sub-Saharan Africa is not only the world’s poorest region, but also the region where the population is growing the fastest.  In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is forecast to grow from 1.1 billion today to 2.1 billion by the year 2050, and much of this increase will be realized in cities along the region’s coastlines.  In West Africa, many of the region’s largest cities are already being threatened by rising sea levels, including Lagos, Abidjan and Dakar.  The same holds true in fast-growing East Africa, where cities such as Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Maputo also face a serious challenge from rising sea levels.  Should this and other environmental changes continue, the potential for widespread population displacement is great, something that could trigger a new migration crisis in this region.

It is hard to argue with the forecast that sea levels will continue to rise in the years and decades to come. Instead, the main point of contention is how fast will sea levels rise and will the rate of sea level rise continue to accelerate.  As we know, there are great discrepancies between the low end of forecast sea level rises and the high end of rising sea levels.  Should sea levels rise at a rate towards the low end of these forecasts, coastal areas should have time to prepare.  However, should the rate continue to increase and sea levels rise faster than expected, many coastal areas are sure to be caught unprepared.  Worse, many of the world’s fastest-growing cities are located along the coast and in areas that are barely above sea level. As such, rising sea levels have the potential to cause unprecedented economic disruptions greater than those caused by other natural disasters or by human conflict.  As a result, preparations for this eventuality must be made now, so that these disruptions are minimized.  If not, rising sea levels will not only result in a humanitarian crisis, but an economic one as well.