As U.N. negotiations resume to try and curb the warming of the planet, some Americans are already preparing for a corresponding rise in sea level that is projected to submerge significant portions of the U.S. coastline.
Many beach communities along the Eastern and Gulf coasts have begun to build up their beaches to protect them from the creeping rise of the ocean's tide. Scientists say it is one projected effect of the melting of icecaps and glaciers that is caused by global warming.
Global warming is caused by pollutants that trap the sun's heat in the Earth's atmosphere, heating the planet above normal levels.
East Coast at Risk
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nation's scientific body on global warming, said sea level is likely to rise by at least 4 inches or perhaps as much as 3 feet by the year 2100 if current trends in climate change continue. In the past century, sea level has risen 4 to 8 inches, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The projected long-term rise in water levels may be a century away, but it could have near-term effects in the form of sudden weather systems. Studies have predicted that climate change will make weather systems more unpredictable, with more flooding, hurricanes and drought.
"People wonder who is going to get hit first [by a rise in sea level]," says Jim Titus, director of the Sea Level Rise project at the EPA. "The United States gets hit first."
Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina and Maryland are the U.S. states that will first see significant damage as seawater floods coastal areas, says Titus. But every state between Maine and Texas has regions that will be flooded if the oceans rise, according to EPA projections (see map to left).
North Carolina and Maryland in particular, he says, are likely to see the most damage to developed dry land. The areas at risk in Florida and Louisiana are mostly wetlands, home to many threatened species of animals and plants that are already stressed by human activities.
Scientists also say that small island nations across the globe as well as countries close to sea level, like Bangladesh, Thailand and Egypt, have much to lose from even a small rise in ocean levels. Many of those nations have been aggressive in their support for measures to curb emissions that are causing the warming of the Earth's atmosphere.
Threat Not Taken Seriously
"Up until now it hasn't really been taken seriously, by anybody but the global climate scientists," says Ken Smith, president of Coastal Advocate, Inc., a firm that lobbies the government on behalf of coastal property owners in New Jersey. "The advantage we have with rising sea levels is it's not a tsunami, it's not a tidal wave. We have some time to prepare for it."
In his lifetime, Smith says he's seen the level of the ocean go up on the New Jersey shore, where he has lived since for decades since he was a child.
Rising sea level won't be as much of a problem on the West Coast, scientists say, because the land along the Pacific Ocean is often quite steep and not as susceptible to rising water levels.
Titus says seaside communities have three choices when they confront the rise of the sea. They can build sea walls and dikes to keep the water out, which is how the Netherlands keeps much of its land dry. Another option building up the land along the sea, which would be a costly, and perhaps, futile endeavor, many scientists say.
The last option, says Titus, is for people to migrate inland.
Curbing global warming is the real solution, of course, many scientists say. But even if international governments are able to agree on ways to decrease pollution, many climate scientists say the effects of any decrease might not be seen for decades.
But the fact that people are starting to do anything at all, says Titus, is a good sign.
"There's a positive take," he says. "People are very slowly starting to deal with the problem."