Sea-level Rise from Climate Change: March 2016 Research Reports on Potential for Coastal Wetland Adaptation and Potential Impacts of Antarctic Ice Melt

Two research studies published in March 2016 reported results from computer modeling of sea-level rise resulting from climate changes: one on how coastal wetlands and other habitats may be able to adapt to rising sea levels, and the second on projections of the potential for melting Antarctic ice to contribute to sea-level rise.

Coastal Adaptation Study

A study led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported that a new computer model indicates that 70 percent of the northeastern U.S. Atlantic Coast may be able to adapt to rising sea levels resulting from climate changes.  Following is an excerpt from the USGS’ March 14, 2016, news release on the study:

“[B]arrier islands may migrate inland, build dunes, change shape, or be split by new inlets as tides, winds, waves and currents sculpt their sands.  Marshes trap sediment and break down decaying plants into new soil, which may elevate them sufficiently in some areas to keep pace with sea-level increases.  While most sea-level rise models that cover large areas show low-lying coastal land converting to open water in coming decades, many of these inundation models over-predict the land likely to submerge.  The USGS model, developed in collaboration with Columbia University’s Earth Institute, produces a more nuanced picture of sea level rise as a mosaic of dry land, wetlands, and open seas, rather than as a uniform response across the landscape.  The USGS model is the first to factor in natural forces and make detailed predictions from the 2020s through the 2080s over a large coastal area, some 38,000 square kilometers (about 9.4 million acres). … Projections from inundation models are straightforward: some coastal land will remain above the levels of the rising seas and some will drown.  The new model includes the potential for dynamic coastal change and shows where in response to future sea levels, coastal lands fall on a continuum between dry land and open water.”

The study is “Evaluation of dynamic coastal response to sea-level rise modifies inundation likelihood,” by Erika E. Lentz et al., published March 14, 2016, by the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, online at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2957.htmlSource: Up to 70 Percent of Northeast U.S. Coast May Adapt to Rising Seas—New model corrects assumption that drowning is only scenario for low-lying coasts, U.S. Geological Survey News Release, 3/14/16.  For a Chesapeake Bay perspective on the study, see Iffy future seen for some Bay marshes as sea level rises, Bay Journal, 3/25/16.

Antarctic Ice-melt Projection Study

The USGS coastal-adaptation report came out just before another asserting that melting Antarctic ice could significantly increase global sea-level rises compared to what has previously been predicted.  The study’s authors’ used computer modeling that incorporated factors of atmospheric warming and the dynamics of Antarctic ice sheets.  The model projected that “Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre [about 3.3 feet] of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres [about 49 feet] by 2500, if emissions [of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases] continue unabated,” according to the study’s abstract (author summary).  The study is “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise,” by Robert M. DeConto of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and David Pollard of Penn State, published March 30, 2016, by the scientific journal Nature online at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v531/n7596/full/nature17145.html.  For news media accounts of the study, see Antarctic loss could double expected sea level rise by 2100, scientists say, Washington Post, as published by Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 3/31/16; and Antarctica Meltdown Could Double Sea-Level Rise, Scientific American, 3/31/16.

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