Climate Change

The US Southeast and Gulf Coasts see record sea level rise

Scientists have observed record-high rates of sea level rise in parts of the coastal U.S. over the last 12 years.

Cape Hatteras seashore
Jose Luis Magana / AP
SMS

The rate of sea level rise has set new records in the past 12 years, according to scientists at Tulane University.

Researchers write in Nature Communications that sea levels on the U.S. Southeast and Gulf coasts were rising at a record rate of about 1/2 inch per year.

"These rapid rates are unprecedented over at least the 20th century and they have been three times higher than the global average over the same period," said lead author Sönke Dangendorf.

The affected area stretches from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.

The higher water levels are partly due to the combined effects of changing wind patterns and warming ocean temperatures. Warmer water takes up more space, and thus can hit higher on the shoreline.

Sea level rise makes the flooding that already occurs more severe, and can cause new flooding in areas that previously stayed high and dry. It also contributes to more extensive storm surge flooding during severe weather events like hurricanes.

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The researchers say the accelerating rate they saw in this period was likely due to a combination of human-driven climate change and high points in the natural variability of ocean weather. It means sea level measurements may be more moderate in coming years.

But scientists and federal agencies warn that by 2050, sea levels could still be as much as foot higher in parts of the coastal U.S., putting more of the population and more of the country’s infrastructure at risk.

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