The Rising Cost of Rising Seas


As global climate change becomes more evident, the likely impacts are being closely studied. More violent weather, more widespread drought, and species extinction are among the negative effects. A rise in sea levels, largely as a result of melting glaciers such as the Greenland ice sheet and polar ice, may be the most significant from an economic perspective. If forceful action is not taken soon, some scientists warn that already-higher sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. Newly released maps highlight the impact of rising seas on the world’s coastlines.

Look at any political world map, and notice how many big cities are on or within a few miles of a coast. Besides the homes and businesses of hundreds of millions of people, consider what else those cities contain—industries, seaports and airports, transportation infrastructure, cultural monuments, and universities, among other establishments. In the United States, coastal cities include New York, Miami, New Orleans, Tampa, Boston, most of which are just a few feet above sea level. Now consider what will happen to all those places as sea levels continue to rise. They will need to be protected in some way, move, or be submerged.

What might be the economic impact of rising sea levels? Some researchers have calculated the figures. (Economics has been called “the dismal science”—in this case, it’s aptly named.) Flooding in the world’s biggest coastal cities already costs some $6 billion per year. By 2050, that annual cost is estimated at $1 trillion (that’s with a tr, not a b). Coastal cities can take measures to alleviate flooding and reduce the cost, such as levees and movable barriers. Those defenses will require a huge investment, of course—perhaps $50 billion per year through the mid-2000s. Yet people continue to build beach houses and oceanfront resorts in areas where you cannot buy flood insurance.

Image credit: ©NASA/Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets

Related Links


  1. poppy says:

    hopefully it cools down

  2. poppy says:

    hopefully it cools down

  3. Eric says:

    So Scary I Bet

  4. pat says:


  5. Jonah says:

    yep this b scary