We all hear a lot about global warming and climate change. But most of us, if we’re honest, have a somewhat detached view of this predicament: the threat of temperatures increasing in the next century seem far beyond our lifetime. The figures and risks released by research bodies appear to vary dramatically and unless you are a globally-dominating billionaire, it seems there’s little – if anything – we can really do to enact change. Sure, most of us recycle and we’re conscious of how much water we use, but that’s a pretty small effort in the grand scheme of things.
Recent natural disasters, however, have forced us to come to terms with the fact that nature can still so easily dominate and destroy anything in her path, be it man-made or otherwise. The devastation caused by hurricanes in the United States in recent years, the flooding in south western England and the overwhelming foods in the Philippines and Indonesia are evidence of this. The common denominator between all of those disasters is flooding and rising sea levels, tangible results of global warming which could pose a critical risk to civilisation in years to come. Sea levels are set to rise as global warming causes the polar icecaps to melt, releasing millions of litres of water into the world’s oceans. At the same time, these warmer climates cause the temperature of the world’s waters to rise, and as this happens, the water molecules expand, taking up more space.
Infographic website Information Is Beautiful have taken a look at the some of the world’s biggest and most iconic cities that are at risk of rising sea levels, with a time-frame for their survival. Some of the cities – and crucially the regions around them – which might disappear under water if current trends continue are surprising. No longer is climate change a risk to far off destinations we view on the news; it’s creeping up on us day by day. The cities below are ranked by the amount that the sea level will need to rise before the country will be entirely submerged.
10. Venice: 1 Metre Rise
The tourist hotspot of Venice is a must-see: whether you’re interested in religion, art, architecture or simply have a taste for the finer things in life, then this coastal Italian city is the place for you. However the city, with its intricate network of canals and waterways, is notoriously low-lying: several of the cities’ ornate buildings have suffered subsidence and structural damage as a result of rising water levels and changes to the ways the soil in the city retains water. In 2008, the city was struck by catastrophic floods that left little in the city undamaged. The image of Venice under water was repeated in January of this year as high rain falls coincided with high tides. The cost of repairing the buildings already damaged by these repeated floods is in the tens of millions of dollars, and according to scientific info collated by Information is Beautiful, a one metre rise in sea levels will be enough to submerge the city.
9. Amsterdam: 2 Metre Rise
The Netherlands are the surrounding regions are often referred to as “the lowlands” and with good reason: one quarter of the country is actually below sea level! Large dykes protect the flat-lying lands from flooding and allow the Dutch to reclaim land that by rights should be swallowed up by the sea. The problem? As sea levels rise, these dykes are under more pressure. With high tides or heavy weather they are at risk of the sea breaching them. Like Venice, Amsterdam is connected by a series of inland waterways: as sea levels these too will swell putting the low-lying city at risk. Amsterdam has, it’s estimated, about 150 years above water before it becomes another Atlantis.
8. Hamburg: 2.5 Metre Rise
The German city of Hamburg may not immediately spring to mind when you think of cities at risk from rising sea levels. The city, which is the second largest in Germany, is located on the floodplains of the River Elbe, just over 100 kilometres from the coast of the North Sea. The city regularly suffers flooding from high rainfall and tides, and with sea levels predicted to rise, this is only set to continue. The city does, of course, have a state-of-the-art flood defence system, but as in the case of the Netherlands, this will prove ineffective as water levels rise. In recent years however, it is not the mighty Elbe nor the ocean that has caused problems, but the smaller tributary and urban waterway systems. In 2002, an estimated $20.8 million worth of damage was done to the city from these smaller rivers flooding.
7. St. Petersburg: 2.5 Metre Rise
The former Russian capital of St. Petersburg is a picturesque city often referred to as the “Venice of the North.” The mighty River Neva’s estuary is here, and the city itself is built on a series of islands interconnected by numerous bridges. This comparison with Venice however also hints at St. Petersburg’s relation with the water surrounding it. Since its founding the city has been used to regular flooding and rises in sea levels, but in recent years these have become more frequent and more dangerous. Flood barriers protect the city from the swell of the Gulf of Finland and flood warning systems are also in place to protect the city. These defence systems came at huge cost to the Russian state, but without them, the city would almost certainly be engulfed by water. The St. Petersburg defence systems, which were completed in 2010, are now serving as a model to several other low-lying cities.
6. Los Angeles: 3 Metre Rise
Los Angeles – and indeed California – may be an area we more commonly associate with drought rather than floods, but make no mistake, the coastal city is as more at risk of being submerged than most others. LA is the first of two Californian cities on our list, highlighting the risk that exists to the Californian coastline. The concentration of industry and the high population is an important factor which would contribute to devastating effects of flooding in LA, although the city has around 200 years before the sea begins to creep up on it. The University of Southern California has conducted numerous studies in sea levels in the Pacific and predicts a rise of between 5 and 25 inches in the water levels on the West Coast. This means the state’s coastline is gradually being eaten up by the sea, putting buildings and housing close to the coast at particular risk of flooding or structural damage.
5. San Francisco 3 Metre Rise
The second Californian city on our list, San Francisco is known the world over for its majestic Golden Gate bridge, impressive architecture and beautiful surroundings. That’s because the city is built on a peninsula curving out from the mainland. This land, however, is at risk from rising sea levels and in spite of the mountainous terrain around California, the San Francisco peninsula will be extremely difficult to protect. It should be noted that the size of LA and San Fran is what puts them on our list above other coastal regions on the West Coast – but other parts of the region are equally at risk. The rising sea levels will reclaim all coastal land, regardless of population, but outside of the large urban areas flood defences are relatively slim.
4. Lower Manhattan 3 Metre Rise
Much like San Francisco, the large population and strategic importance of Manhattan and indeed New York lands it on our list as a high-risk area. The recent destruction of Hurricane Sandy and indeed the storms before it have already demonstrated that New York is now seriously in need of a new flood defence system. The tragic 2012 post-tropical cyclone killed 117 people in the United States and an additional 69 in Canada and the Caribbean and set new records for flood lines and surges in the New York area. The estimated cost to New York State was $41.9 billion. Since then, questions have been raised about how Manhattan – and indeed the East Coast – will handle such storms in the future. The combination of a high density of population and low lying lands on the island of Manhattan mean that the risks are potentially deadly.
3. New Orleans (Lowest Levee) 5 Metre Rise
Without question, New Orleans is tragically the American city most associated with the losses and costs of flooding. The devastation caused along the Mississippi Delta in recent years has highlighted how vulnerable we really are when faced with the threat of more aggressive storms and rising sea levels. Katrina in particular also hammered home the need for better and faster aftercare. The lowest levees of New Orleans has around 350 years before rising sea levels reclaim them. Since hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has vastly stepped up their flood defences: a chain of flood gates, dams and canals means that the city now has the best flood defence system in the United States, and is better equipped than most to deal with any future disasters.
2. South London 5.5 Metre Rise
The myth of London being swallowed up by the sea is something that has fascinated the public for some time now: from J.G Ballard’s The Drowned World to more recent works, London is often emblematic of low-lying cities at risk of from rising sea levels. Why? The city itself is built around the Thames estuary and, as such, the terrain on which much of the city lies – in particular in the south and east – is marshland, meaning it absorbs too much water even at the best of times. Flood more water into this area via the rising sea levels and what do you have? Entire districts disappearing.
The quayside along the banks of the Thames is already reclaimed land, with the Victoria Embankment being the most famous development of this sort, meaning that Victoria would be first to go. Many other high-density areas are also at risk. London has been given about 375 years before it goes the way of Atlantis and at present the city has an extensive flood defence system called the Thames Barrier to protect from high tides. The most recent problem is the flooding of the River Thames further upstream than normal, affecting the commuter lines and greater suburbs of the city.
1. Shanghai: 6.5 Metre Rise
Much like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Shanghai is only one of many Chinese cities at risk from rising sea levels; others include Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The 6.5 metre rise in sea levels is predicted to take around 400 years to occur and would result in the city being completely submerged by water. It’s worth noting that this is, of course, a worst case scenario – but a small rise in sea levels in a shorter space of time would still see land reclaimed by the sea. Business Insider reported that if sea levels rise by half a metre by 2070, then 5.5 million people in the city will be at risk. The Coastal City Flood Vulnerability Index also found that Shanghai was the most at-risk of all major cities it surveyed, as the city’s flood defences are critically underprepared.