We’ve all heard terrible stories about how the future will be devastated by sea level rise.
As temperatures around the globe continue to rise, ice in the Earth’s polar regions and glaciers will melt, dumping tons of extra water into the ocean. In addition, warmer water temperatures will cause the oceans to expand.
These factors will cause sea levels to increase and swamp coastal areas all over the world.
Although flooding is the obvious consequence of rising sea levels, there are plenty of other effects to consider — none of them good.
Here are five effects of sea level rise you probably haven’t thought about:
1. It will contaminate our drinking water
As the rising sea crawls farther and farther up the shore, in many places it will seep into the freshwater sources in the ground that many coastal areas rely on for their drinking water. These underground water sources, called aquifers, are crucial springs of freshwater — in fact, groundwater accounts for most of the freshwater on Earth.
Saltwater is unsafe to drink, and while it’s possible to remove the salt from water, it’s an expensive process and complicated process. Some communities are already investing in costly desalination plants in anticipation of hard times ahead. San Diego County in drought-stricken California is building the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western hemisphere, and the MIT Technology Review reports that the plant will cost about $US1 billion.
These kinds of costly projects may be unrealistic for coastal communities on a large scale.
2. It will interfere with farming
Those same freshwater sources we use for drinking also supply the water we use for irrigation. The problems here are the same: The intruding sea could make these groundwater sources saltier. Saltwater can stunt or even kill crops, but creating freshwater from saltwater is a costly and unsustainable practice.
In a twist of irony, recent research has suggested that pumping freshwater from the ground for human use may actually be contributing to sea level rise. After the groundwater has been used — for drinking, irrigation, or other industrial purposes — it is often discarded into the ocean, where it only adds to the already-growing volume of water lapping at our shores.
3. It will change our coastal plant life
More saltwater hitting our shores will change the chemistry of the soil on the coast, meaning the plant life there will likely change as well.
Plants are really sensitive to their environments. Air temperature, access to water, and the chemical characteristics of soil are all factors that influence whether a plant can thrive in a given location.
As rising ocean water seeps into the ground, one consequence is that the soil near the coast will become saltier. Some plants will simply be unable to cope with the change in soil salinity and may disappear from the shoreline.
According to Climate Central, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to communicating climate science to the public, trees will have an extra hard time. Climate Central reports:
Trees have to work harder to pull water out of salty soil; as a result, their growth can be stunted — and if the soil is salty enough, they will die, a common sign of sea level rise. Even trees that are especially suited to salty soil can’t survive repeated flooding by seawater.
4. It will threaten wildlife populations
Many forms of wildlife make their home on the beach. As the rising ocean erodes the shoreline and floods the areas where coastal animals live, animals like shorebirds and sea turtles will suffer.
Their delicate nests may be swept away by flooding, an especially big problem for endangered animals like sea turtles who can’t afford to lose any valuable offspring. Their habitats may be so damaged by flooding or changes in the surrounding plant life that they can no longer thrive in the environment.
5. It will hurt the economy
The tourism and real estate industries in coastal areas are likely to take a hit as prime beachfront properties and recreational areas are washed away by rising waters. This is a fact that some involved in these industries are finding hard to swallow.
North Carolina is a prime example of the conflict between climate science and economic interests. Several years ago, a team of North Carolina scientists published a report predicting a three-foot increase in sea level by the end of the century — bad news for the popular (and often expensive) North Carolina beaches.
Pressured by economically minded local residents and real estate stakeholders, the North Carolina government eventually passed a law banning coastal policy makers from using accelerated sea-level rise predictions to make decisions for their communities.
But such laws don’t erase the fact that flooded beaches are no attraction for tourists or property buyers who, in the coming years, may see fit to take their business to less vulnerable areas.
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