Sea Levels Rising Fast on U.S. East Coast

Charles Q. Choi for National Geographic News

Published June 25, 2012

Sea level rise on the U.S. East Coast has accelerated much faster than in other parts of the worldroughly three to four times the global average, a new study says.

Calling the heavily populated region a sea level rise hot spot, researchers warn that cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore could face a more flood-prone future.

(Also see “New York, Boston ‘Directly in Path’ of Sea Level Rise.”)

Sea levels worldwide are expected to rise as global warming melts ice and causes water to expand. Those levels, though, are expected to vary from place to place, due to factors such as ocean currents, differences in seawater temperature and saltiness, and the Earth’s shape.

Now it seems scientists have pinpointed just such a variance.

Analyzing tide-level data from much of North America, U.S. Geological Survey scientists unexpectedly found that sea levels in the 600-mile (1,000-kilometer) stretch of coast from Cape Hatteras (map), North Carolina, to the Boston area climbed by about 2 to 3.8 millimeters a year, on average, between 1950 and 2009.

Global sea level rise averaged about 0.6 to 1 millimeter annually over the same period.

“If you talk with residents of this hot spot area in their 70s or 80s who’ve lived there all their lives, they’ll tell you water is coming higher now in winter storms than it ever did before,” said study co-author Peter Howd, an oceanographer contracted with the USGS.

“We’re now finally getting to the point where we can measure their observations with our highfalutin scientific instruments.”

(Sea sea level rise pictures.)

Flood of Data

At New York City, the team extrapolated, sea levels could rise by 7.8 to 11.4 inches (20 to 29 centimeters) by 2100—in addition to the roughly 3 feet (1 meter) of average sea level rise expected worldwide by then. (Related: “New York Seas to Rise Twice as Much as Rest of U.S.”)

For residents of New York and cities up and down the eastern seaboard, those numbers should become a lot more than ink on paper.

“The first thing people will see from this is an increase over the next few decades in the low-level coastal flooding that occurs now with wintertime storms,” Howd said.

“Eventually you’ll see coastal flooding events three to four times a year instead of once every three to four years.”

But it’s not just cities that are expected to suffer.

“The northeast coast of the U.S. is flat,” said climate modeler Jianjun Yin at the University of Arizona, who did not participate in this research. “Even gradual sea level rise could cause rapid retreat of shoreline and significant loss of wetland habitats.”

(Related: “Groundwater Depletion Accelerates Sea-Level Rise.”)

Mysteries of East Coast Sea Level Rise

It’s still something of a mystery why the U.S. East Coast is bearing the brunt of sea level rise. Maybe, the researchers say, fresh water from Greenland’s melting ice is disrupting North Atlantic currents, slowing the Gulf Stream and causing East Coast sea levels to rise.

It’s also unclear to what extent humans may be to blame.

“This could be part of a natural cycle maybe 100 to 200 years long. Or not,” study ao-author Howd said. “We need more data over years to help build climate models and greater understanding.”

The team cautions too that the East Coast may not be alone.

“We’re now looking into extending our analysis to see if hot spots in sea level rise show up in other places around the globe,” said USGS oceanographer Kara Doran, who co-authored the study, published June 24 by the journal Nature Climate Change.

Nothing to See Here?

The new findings come at a particularly interesting political moment in one of the states in the sea level hot zone.

Concerned over regulations that could result from recent sea level rise forecasts, some North Carolina legislators have drafted a bill requiring that future state sea level forecasts be based on only past patterns.

“Trying to ban the use of the best science for sea level predictions is absurd,” said University of Pennsylvania coastal geologist Ben Horton, who wasn’t part of the new study.

NASA climate scientist Josh Willis agreed, adding that such efforts “are sort of a case of human nature trying to outwit Mother Nature, and Mother Nature usually wins that battle of wits.

“It’s really shortsighted to assume that the next hundred years of sea level rise are going to be like the last hundred years,” Willis added. “We’re already seeing glaciers and ice sheets melt more quickly, and the ocean absorbing more heat and expanding—things that drive sea level rise.”

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8 Responses to Sea Levels Rising Fast on U.S. East Coast

  1. Citizen Harry says:

    Gosh, quit using those science verified, study verified, scare tactics. Geeze.

  2. Citizen Harry says:

    If you’re referring to ‘comrade’ as being a slur meaning ‘communist’, I must say that I continue to be amused at your constant insistence at showing your level of evolution as a human being. It continues to shed a telling light on the mentality of your own affiliate bosses in politics, and the coal companies.

    But to reply, no, my ‘comrades’ are not scientists. Those who study climate, and it’s effects are not personal friends of mine. Their findings are meant for everyone indiscriminately. Fortunately for all of us, Science IS, whether you believe it or not.

    I’m guessing that from the sound of your mentality, you probably also of the opinion that the earth was created 3,000 years ago, and exists in the center of the universe. Of course, Galileo, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking are all faker comrades, also.

    Believe what you will, but science still proves that the earth is still 4 billion years old, there are still billions and billions of galaxies, and our sun is still just an ordinary star on the third band of a small galaxy in no particularly important place in comparison with the universe. That there is probably intelligent life strewn all over the universe, though you’re a good example of how intelligent life on Earth is still in an infant state of evolution perched on a thin line between existence and self destruction.

    Science changes with new data, but greed, power, and self-centered thinking feeds on itself and fears change. Your comments continually show that to be true.

    • Walt says:

      Harry, have you ever looked up the meaning of the word comrade? I’m shocked that you would think such a thing. Have I in any way or form ever accused you of being a communist? That tells me a lot about you and how you interpret the written word or should I say how you want to interpret the written word.

      You can believe that everything we have today was created by some big bang that happened millions of years ago, you can believe that our bodies and minds happened by chance, you can believe that millions of creatures are here today because of some big bang theory. I however believe in creationism, I believe God created all living things.

      Please keep writing your little rants, I do enjoy them so much, comrade……I mean friend

  3. Citizen Harry says:

    Well, again you don’t have your facts straight, even though you spout them here. It’s not millions of years ago, but billions since the Big Bang. And it’s not a just a theoretical event, but a name given to the observation of the fact that the universe is expanding through observable time. You see, as you look out at the stars, you are looking back into time, because there is a thing called the speed of light. Through scientific observation, and the evolution of the telescope, science has been able to learn a lot about the evolution of the known universe.

    Though the stars in galaxies are bound by gravity, the billions of galaxies themselves are expanding away from each other. There is still debate on whether the Big Bang was the result of a subsequent contraction of the previous universe, and exists as a cyclic condition of an unending universe, or whether it was a one time event. Many Western scientists, and philosophers pose that it was a one time event, and that the universe will simply expand forever. Many Eastern scientists, and philosophers are more comfortable with the view that it is cyclical, (expanding and contracting universe) since the rest of physics seems to follow cyclical patterns of birth, maturation, old age, and death (in metaphorical terms, such as the coming and going of the seasons of the year on this planet). So there is still no final scientific answer, and the Big Bang Theory is only the tip of the iceberg of understanding how the universe works.

    And, the scientific fact that there was a Big Bang event does not imply anything about intelligent design, or the existence of God. You can be a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, or whatever, but if you sit under a tree and get hit on the head by an apple, you’ll be experiencing a common law of science on this planet. Gravity. A law which exists regardless of the mentality of a personal belief.

    So you can actually include the science of cosmology in philosophical terms, and most forward thinking people don’t find it anything more than miraculous, and supportive of their spiritual growth. After all, even the Pope has acknowledged the possibility of alien life, and even that church has embraced changes in scientific facts, such as early Earth Centric beliefs. They no longer condemn to death heretics that use science to educate themselves. They realized centuries ago that the church had to see beyond it’s backward thinking, and embrace science as a part of God’s design as well. Modern thought seeks to harmonize science with philosophy, and bless the opportunity to become closer to the wonder that is the universe. This is what helps us find similarity, compassion, dialogue, and growth in cultural beliefs, instead of self centric “my religion is the only right religion” that fosters hatred, war, greed and slavery instead of peace and spiritual growth.

    But I’m all ears to have you explain why all this philosophic, and scientific observation is false.

    Please continue…if you dare expose the philosophy behind your comments.

    • Walt says:

      Harry, I realize that you rarely answer any question that I ask, and I know that this will be a Herculean task for you. But sense you believe in evolution, I thought it would be interesting to see your opinion.

      1. Where did the space for the universe come from?
      2. Where did matter come from?
      3. Where did the laws of the universe come from (gravity, inertia, etc.)?
      4. How did matter get so perfectly organized?
      5. Where did the energy come from to do all the organizing?
      6. When, where, why, and how did life come from dead matter?
      7. When, where, why, and how did life learn to reproduce itself?
      8. With what did the first cell capable of sexual reproduction reproduce?
      9. Why would any plant or animal want to reproduce more of its kind since this would only make more mouths to feed and decrease the chances of survival? (Does the individual have a drive to survive, or the species? How do you explain this?)
      10. How can mutations (recombining of the genetic code) create any new, improved varieties? (Recombining English letters will never produce Chinese books.)
      11. Is it possible that similarities in design between different animals prove a common Creator instead of a common ancestor?
      12. Natural selection only works with the genetic information available and tends only to keep a species stable. How would you explain the increasing complexity in the genetic code that must have occurred if evolution were true?
      13. When, where, why, and how did
      a. Single-celled plants become multi-celled? (Where are the two and three-celled intermediates?)
      b. Single-celled animals evolve?
      c. Fish change to amphibians?
      d. Amphibians change to reptiles?
      e. Reptiles change to birds? (The lungs, bones, eyes, reproductive organs, heart, method of locomotion, body covering, etc., are all very different!)
      How did the intermediate forms live?
      14. When, where, why, how, and from what did:
      a. Whales evolve?
      b. Sea horses evolve?
      c. Bats evolve?
      d. Eyes evolve?
      e. Ears evolve?
      f. Hair, skin, feathers, scales, nails, claws, etc., evolve?
      15. Which evolved first (how, and how long, did it work without the others)?
      a. The digestive system, the food to be digested, the appetite, the ability to find and eat the food, the digestive juices, or the body’s resistance to its own digestive juice (stomach, intestines, etc.)?
      b. The drive to reproduce or the ability to reproduce?
      c. The lungs, the mucus lining to protect them, the throat, or the perfect mixture of gases to be breathed into the lungs?
      d. DNA or RNA to carry the DNA message to cell parts?
      e. The termite or the flagella in its intestines that actually digest the cellulose?
      f. The plants or the insects that live on and pollinate the plants?
      g. The bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or muscles to move the bones?
      h. The nervous system, repair system, or hormone system?
      i. The immune system or the need for it?
      16. There are many thousands of examples of symbiosis that defy an evolutionary explanation. Why must we teach students that evolution is the only explanation for these relationships?
      17. How would evolution explain mimicry? Did the plants and animals develop mimicry by chance, by their intelligent choice, or by design?
      18. When, where, why, and how did man evolve feelings? Love, mercy, guilt, etc. would never evolve in the theory of evolution.
      19. *How did photosynthesis evolve?
      20. * How did thought evolve?
      21. *How did flowering plants evolve, and from what?
      22. *What kind of evolutionist are you? Why are you not one of the other eight or ten kinds?
      23. What would you have said fifty years ago if I told you I had a living coelacanth in my aquarium?
      24. *Is there one clear prediction of macroevolution that has proved true?
      25. *What is so scientific about the idea of hydrogen gas becoming human?
      26. *Do you honestly believe that everything came from nothing?

  4. Citizen Harry says:

    Though I am intrigued, and interested in a dialogue about all these questions, it’s surely here not a matter of a learned explanation from my aspect. Since I’m just a common mortal, I don’t have the whole secret answer to the universe available to you on your level. You obviously didn’t bring up these questions as an honest inquiry, but to call out someone that you think is below you on a spiritual and scientific level. So out of compassion, I will refrain from advancing ancient and, or modern wisdom to you at this point. Though should you convince me of a sincere and earnest desire for real dialogue, I would relish the chance to spend time discussing with you these incredibly well thought out, and deeply spiritual topics.

    In respect to our history of dialogue on this blog, I don’t believe an actual real human discussion with ‘Walt’ about these topics is possible based on the proliferation of human kindness, or is even remotely positively relevant to the original content. So I decline to answer at this time based on general compassion for the good of all beings, as well as being an example of why someone shouldn’t respond emotionally to lowly forms of extremely banal forms of ridicule hidden in commentary and inquisition.
    – Citizen Harry

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