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Millions of people are more vulnerable to rising seas than previously thought – USA TODAY


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Worldwide, some 300 million people live where dangerous climate-triggered flooding will occur by mid-century, a new study suggests. 

That’s three times higher than previous estimates of 80 million. Most of the people at risk live in Asian countries such as China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The study shows “the potential of climate change to reshape cities, economies, coastlines, and entire global regions within our lifetimes,” said study lead author Scott Kulp, a senior scientist at Climate Central, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization. 

“As the tideline rises higher than the ground people call home, nations will increasingly confront questions about whether, how much, and how long coastal defenses can protect them,” Kulp said.

The study used improved methods to measure the actual elevation of land throughout Asia. It found that in many locations, the land was actually several feet lower than had been thought. 

Sea-level rise is one of the main impacts from global warming. Here’s how it works: As the Earth’s temperature warms, so do the seas. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases cause more land ice (glaciers and ice sheets) to melt and water to expand. Warmer water simply takes up more room than cooler water.

Global warming will be the primary cause of future sea-level rise. The greatest uncertainty is how quickly the massive West Antarctic ice sheet will melt.

Over the course of the 21st century, global sea levels are projected to rise between about 2 and 7 feet, and possibly more, according to Climate Central.

“For all of the critical research that’s been done on climate change and sea-level projections, it turns out that for most of the global coast we didn’t know the height of the ground beneath our feet,” said Benjamin Strauss, chief scientist of Climate Central and co-author of the study. 

“This is a far greater problem than we understood,” Strauss added. “Far more people live in risky places today than we thought and the problem only multiplies in the future.”

He said the new study found “a huge difference” in elevation in places such as Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Jakarta and Mumbai.

Sea-level rise experts said the study highlighted a problem with current data, especially in Asia.

“This study represents very significant progress in the understanding of the risk which climate change-related sea level will cause for hundreds of million of people before the end of this century,” said Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of the Universite catholique de Louvain in Belgium. “If hundreds or even tens of millions of people are flooded in Asia or Africa, it will create social and economic disruptions on a huge scale.”

The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Communications

Contributing: The Associated Press

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