What U.S. cities will look like with sea level rise, according to scientific projections

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A projection of sea level rise in Beaumont, Texas, if the planet warmed by 3 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. (Credit: Climate Central)

(NEXSTAR) – The most severe impacts of climate change can feel far-off and far away from home, but a series of dramatic photo renderings released by Climate Central make the prospect of rising sea levels hit startlingly close to home.

Climate Central is an organization of scientists and journalists focused on studying the impacts of climate change and warming global temperatures. The group recently released its “Picturing Our Future” project, which shows what world monuments and cities would look like if the planet warmed 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and what it would look like if we warmed 3 degrees over those same levels.

In the series of slider images below, the image on the left represents a 1.5-degree warming scenario — which is the target of the Paris Agreement. The image on the right shows what “sea level rise” would look like in a planet that warmed by 3 degrees Celsius. (A 1.5 degree-change in Celsius is equal to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit; 3 degrees Celsius is 5.4 degree Fahrenheit.)

Projected sea level rise at Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, Fla.: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in August, the world is set to surpass the crucial 1.5-degree threshold in the early 2030s. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing these flooding scenarios play out in the next ten years.

“This is using projections that are really deep into the future,” said Peter Girard, Climate Central’s director of communications. Girard called each of the futures depicted “multi-century scenarios.”

That’s because as the earth warms, it takes time for polar ice to melt, sea levels to rise, and oceans to expand (which they do when heated).

Projected sea level rise at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

We’re already at 1.1 degrees of warming compared to pre-industrial temperatures, but we haven’t even seen the full impact of such heat on the rising sea level yet.

These projections show that full, eventual impact. “Each of the water levels represents the eventual point of equilibrium where the seas stop rising after the earth hits a certain peak temperature,” said Girard.

Scientists are confident about these outcomes. They’re just not sure of the exact timing, Girard explained.

“In general, because it’s easier to figure out volume, science has an easier time understanding how high seas will rise and a harder time figuring out when it will happen.”

Projected sea level rise in downtown San Francisco: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

It’s a concept that can be hard to grasp in the abstract, but these images make the effects of sea level rise tangible and real.

“The seas have stayed more or less where they always were,” said Girard. “It’s really hard to get people to understand that we live in a world where they’re moving, and they’re rising.”

Projected sea level rise at Iolani Palace in Honolulu: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

Not all of the places depicted are coastal (though many are). Climate Central’s series of images show the impact of sea level rise on inland communities, too.

“Rivers rise with oceans,” said Girard. “All of those connections are affected by rising seas. Communities you often think of as further upriver or not on the beach are still connected to this global system.”

Projected sea level rise at the Santa Monica Pier: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

The science that went into creating the projections is complicated, but essentially boils down into three parts:

  1. Analyzing sea level rise, based on IPCC projections
  2. Forecasting expected coastal flooding
  3. Creating the digital elevation models — actually the hardest part, according to Girard, because most older models overestimated how high the ground is, therefore underestimating the impact of flooding.
Projected sea level rise at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

Girard hopes the complex science translates into something meaningful for people when they see these images.

“So much of this story, so much of climate change is told on a global level. One of the things we’ve tried to do with our research is bring it to a personal and local level. Each of these places resonates with people differently because they are familiar with them and they care about them.”

Girard, too, said one aspect of the project left an especially strong impression on him: “The thought that familiar places can become so unfamiliar.”

Projected sea level rise at the Temperature of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam: 1.5 C compared to 3 C (Photos: Climate Central)

See how more U.S. cities and world monuments will be affected by sea level rise at Climate Central’s website.

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