Surging Seas Sea level rise analysis by Climate Central

The Surging Seas Story

By Michael D. Lemonick

Looking back, it should have been obvious that the Surging Seas project was a perfect fit for Climate Central. Our mission is to bring home the threats posed by climate change — and sea level rise is high on that list. 

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Ben Strauss

The truth, however, is that Surging Seas came about largely by accident. In 2009, Climate Central scientist Ben Strauss was putting together a multimedia project on melting ice in Greenland, and thought a good way to illustrate the problem would be to talk about the ice-melt danger to specific American cities, by way of how much it would raise sea level.

He began poking around on the Web, and discovered that a group of scientists at the University of Arizona had produced a map of sea level risk. “I called to ask if they could intersect their map with the locations of 10 major cities,” Strauss said, “and they were enthusiastic. But we all quickly realized it would be almost as easy for 3,000 cities as for 10.”

Luckily for Strauss and his collaborators, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was just finishing a multiyear project on modeling sea level at the local level, based on measurements from some of the hundreds of tide gauges that dot the coastline from Maine to the State of Washington. That allowed them to fine tune the original map to local conditions.

Climate Central scientist Claudia Tebaldi, an expert on climate statistics, added projections into the future from the world’s most powerful climate models, and the organization’s graphic programmer, Remik Ziemlinski, powered the data behind the interactive map that has just debuted on the website. “Most researchers,” Strauss said, “use a standard software package, but we were giving it so much data that it kept crashing. Remik’s custom-designed system is up to a thousand times faster.”

The result is something anyone who’s curious or worried about sea level rise can use, as of today. “You can type in a zip code, or the name of a town or city,” Strauss said, “and see what areas would be under water level if the sea rises anywhere from 1 to 10 feet above high-tide.” It doesn’t have to be from sea level rise alone: the database has information on storm surges as well, which makes sense: if your house or your business is flooded out, you don’t really care whether it’s one or the other or both that caused it.

Thanks to the embedded information on climate projections, moreover, you can look at the odds of a major flood of any height you choose out into the future. “This could be really helpful for a lot of people,” Strauss said, “— local governments, towns, businesses. I feel like a carpenter — we’ve built something real and useful.”

He’s still very concerned about what’s happening to the climate, though. He and his wife have a 2-year-old son. “You’re having a kid, that gives us optimism,” his friends told him. “But I worry a lot,” Strauss said. “I think there’s a good chance the world could degenerate into a sad, ugly and violent place. It’s hard enough for me, but anyone who’s a child today, by the time they’re having children, retiring, it’s going to be clear to everyone that a crisis is upon us. But I also look at my son and know the meaning of the human spirit . . . we’re very adaptable, and we always have to keep trying.”