Hotspot of Accelerated Sea-level Rise on the Atlantic Coast of North America
A walk by the seaside is a lovely thing, unless that stretch of beach used to be your back yard. While public opinions on threat of climate change are volatile, there is near total consensus in the scientific community: Global warming is happening and its effects are being felt already, particularly in coastal regions.
Rather than rising equally at all points around the globe, local sea levels can be higher or lower than the average depending on circulation patterns, water salinity, gravity effects, and the rotation and shape of the Earth. A 2012 study in the journal Nature Climate Change, “Hotspot of Accelerated Sea-level Rise on the Atlantic Coast of North America,” explores trends in ocean level rise in the Northeastern United States. The researchers, based at the U.S. Geological Survey’s St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center, analyzed historical tide-gauge records and projected out potential sea-level rises in 60-, 50-, and 40-year windows.
The findings include:
- Historically, sea levels have been relatively low along the Northeastern U.S. because of the dynamic interplay between the Gulf Stream and other environmental factors. “These low levels could rise with warming and/or freshening of surface water in the subpolar north Atlantic.”
- From 1950 to 2009 (60-year window), the global rise in sea levels averaged 0.59mm per year, plus or minus 0.26mm. By comparison, in the Northeastern U.S., from Cape Hatteras up to Maine, levels rose 1.97mm, plus or minus 0.64mm — more than three times the global rate.
- From 1970 to 2009 (40-year window), the global sea levels rose 0.98mm per year, plus or minus 0.33mm. For the Northeast, the rate was 3.80mm per year, plus or minus 1.06mm — nearly four times the global rate.
- South of Cape Hatteras and north of Boston, changes in sea level are either negative or not statistically different from zero: 0.11mm, plus or minus 0.92mm, to the south; -0.94mm, plus or minus 0.88mm, to the north.
- If current trends in greenhouse-gas emissions continue, by 2100 the sea level at New York City is projected to rise by 36 to 51cm (14 to 20 inches). In a scenario with lower emissions of greenhouse gases, the increase would be 24 to 36cm (9 to 14 inches).
The researchers call the region of accelerated sea-level rise a “unique 1,000-kilometer-long hotspot,” where the effects of climate change will be disproportionately felt. Major metropolitan areas within this region include Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. “[Sea-level rise] superimposed on storm surge, wave run-up and set-up will increase the vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding, and beaches and wetlands to deterioration,” they state.
Tags: oceans, global warming, science
Read the study-related Boston Globe article titled "Rising Sea Level a Threat to East."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
Read the full study titled "Hotspot of Accelerated Sea-level Rise on the Atlantic Coast of North America."
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?