Far more people at risk of rising seas than feared: Climate study

Far more people at risk of rising seas than feared: Climate study

Residential houses submerged in floodwaters following heavy rainfall are seen at a town in Shantou
Residential houses submerged in floodwaters following heavy rainfall are seen at a town in Shantou, Guangdong province, China September 2, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

LONDON: Climate change will put three times more people at risk of coastal flooding by 2050 than previously thought, according to a study published on Tuesday (Oct 29), with swathes of Asia and cities in North America and Europe all vulnerable to rising seas.

The research by Climate Central, a US-based non-profit climate science and news organisation, underscored the scale of the upheaval projected to unfold as global warming increasingly threatens some of the world's most densely populated regions.

The study found that 300 million people are now living on land that is likely to flood at least once a year on average by mid-century without adequate sea defences, even if governments manage to make sharp cuts in emissions.

Earlier estimates had put that figure at about 80 million.

The authors said they had used artificial intelligence to correct systematic errors in a previous dataset that had suggested many inhabited coastal zones were at higher elevations - and thus safer - than they actually are.

"We now understand that the threat from sea-level rise and coastal flooding is far greater than we previously thought," said Benjamin Strauss, chief executive of Climate Central and co-author of the three-year study.

"It's also true that the benefits from cutting climate pollution are far greater than we previously thought – this changes the whole benefit-cost equation," Strauss told Reuters.

ASIAN CITIES UNDER SIEGE

The study found that more than 70 per cent of the world's population currently living on land at risk are located in eight Asian countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.  

According to the coastal risk screening tool on the Climate Central website,  Bangkok, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh are under particular threat, with these Southeast Asian cities projected to fall below annual flood level by 2050. 

 

Bangkok sea level rise modelling
Land in and around Bangkok projected to be lower than local sea-level and/or coastal flood projection by 2050. (Screengrab: Climate Central, Coastal Risk Screening Tool)

Continued high carbon emissions, along with instability in the Antarctic, could lead to land currently occupied by roughly one-third of Bangladesh's and Vietnam's populations permanently falling below the high tide line by the end of the century. 

Even with deep cuts to carbon emissions, data from the study showed that Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam could face high tide lines above land now home to 19 per cent, 17 per cent and 26 per cent of their respective populations. 

Ho Chi Minh City sea level rise
Land in and around Ho Chi Minh City projected to be lower than local sea-level and/or coastal flood projection by 2050. (Screengrab: Climate Central, Coastal Risk Screening Tool)

The threat that advancing seas will overwhelm the ability of countries to build coastal defences and force many millions of people to migrate has long been regarded as one of the most potentially destabilising impacts of the climate crisis.

The risks were underlined last month when the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a landmark report on oceans that said sea levels could rise by one metre by 2100 - ten times the rate in the 20th century - if carbon emissions keep climbing.

A man carrying lunch boxes walks in water as roads are flooded due to heavy rain in Dhaka
A man carrying lunch boxes walks in water as roads are flooded due to heavy rain in Dhaka, Bangladesh July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain/

Even if governments manage some curbs on emissions, the new study, published in Nature Communications, said that about 237 million people spread across China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand are likely to face annual flooding by mid-century, unless they establish adequate sea defences.

By 2100, if emissions continue unchecked, and ice sheets rapidly disintegrate, then land where 250 million people now live in those six countries will fall below the waterline at high tide - putting almost five times more people at risk than assessments based on previous elevation data had found.

The study, which found that today's dykes, sea walls and levees already allow 110 million people to live below the high tide line, did not factor in the impact of these or possible future defences, the authors said, citing a lack of data.

A woman directs traffic on a flooded road after typhoon Wipha in Hanoi
A woman directs traffic on a flooded road after typhoon Wipha in Hanoi, Vietnam August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Kham/

Although a certain amount of sea-level rise is baked into the climate system due to a legacy of past carbon emissions, rapid cuts in greenhouse gas pollution now could steer the world away from worse coastal flooding by century's end, the study found.

The authors urged governments to urgently conduct surveys to find out how feasible it might be to hold back the rising waters as well as take action to reverse carbon emissions, which hit a record high last year.

"We don't know whether today's coastal defences will be sufficient for tomorrow's sea levels," Strauss said. "Every day of warning we've had for a hurricane saves lives and property. Every decade counts in preparing for sea-level rise."

Source: Reuters/aa

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