Interactive Map Shows How Scary Sea Level Rise Could Get

Climate Central’s latest visualization reveals what could happen, depending on how much we cut carbon emissions.
Lower Manhattan skyline. (Photo: Flickr)
Oct 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Next time you sing the song “America the Beautiful,” consider this: Back in 1895, when Katherine Lee Bates concluded the tune with the famous lyrics “from sea to shining sea,” she probably would have been horrified to know that, thanks to climate change, those seas she lauded might one day submerge part of the nation’s capital.

Indeed, as the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, from the epicenter of the financial world in New York City to the heart of the tech industry 2,906 miles to the west in San Francisco, hundreds of coastal locales are under significant threat from rising sea levels.

For all the visual learners out there, the folks at the nonprofit science organization Climate Central have created “Mapping Choices,” a helpful—and rather horrifying—interactive tool that allows users to check out just how much of their city or town will be submerged under different carbon-cutting scenarios.

RELATED: NASA Says Three Feet of Sea Level Rise Is Unavoidable

Climate Central takes its projections from a study published late last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to that research, the choices we make now will determine just how much of our future will be underwater. Environmental activists hope world leaders will announce a cap on emissions at the upcoming COP21—the United Nations Climate Change Conference—in Paris this December.

However, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere won’t just magically disappear the day after any potential agreement by world leaders—meaning a significant amount of warming is already baked into our future. Ice sheets the size of enormous asteroids are likely to keep on melting. Perhaps this visualization of Washington, D.C., should be slid into the briefcases of all the Americans heading to the conference.

But the choice between a world where carbon emissions continue unabated and one where the amount of greenhouse gases spewing into the atmosphere is checked is a significant one. To that end, users of Climate Central’s tool can type in a city name or zip code and see what the effects of rising seas might be, depending on the carbon scenario they choose. If folks type in a landlocked town in the middle of Kansas, the future seems just fine. But no place in the coastal U.S. can escape from rising waters.

RELATED: 10 Images Show What Coastal Cities Will Look Like After Sea Levels Rise

If carbon emissions aren't curbed, folks in Boston can kiss Harvard good-bye—as well as the city’s most visited landmark, the Old North Church, where the “One if by land, and two if by sea” lanterns warning about the invading British at the start of the Revolutionary War were hung.

In New York City, well, let’s just say Central Park might still be there if we don't cut emissions, but much of the rest of Manhattan, and wide swaths of the other four boroughs, will be underwater. (If you can’t stand the traffic around La Guardia or JFK airports, guess what? They’ll both probably be gone.)

Meanwhile, Miami could shrink by more than half, as could several other cities in Florida.

Sure, rents have soared into the stratosphere in San Francisco, but imagine the housing crunch after parts of the city disappear under the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

And then there’s New Orleans. Harking back to the devastation we saw after Hurricane Katrina hit, the majority of New Orleans will be submerged without significant cuts to carbon emissions. But even if reductions are made, the future for the Big Easy looks grim.

Climate Central isn’t the first organization to visualize sea level rise. These maps are just for locations in the United States, but last year, an interactive website called World Under Water let folks type in addresses around the world. Perhaps protesters at that upcoming Paris climate summit will pass out photos created with that tool of a submerged Arc de Triomphe.

How soon these terrifying scenarios could happen is tough to pinpoint because there are so many variables: Will Paris decide to kick cars off the roads permanently? Will Dutch artist Daan Roosegarde’s smog towers that suck carbon from the air become mainstream? And how fast will the ice sheets keep melting?

“Our research does not project, and this animation does not show, exactly when sea level will reach heights great enough to pose these dangers—likely centuries,” wrote Climate Central in an explanation on its website. “Rather, our findings assess when enough carbon pollution will have accumulated, under each scenario, to lock in future sea level rise posing existential threats for each town or city—sea level rise that could submerge land where more than half of today’s population lives.”