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Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Scientists develop new method to help global coasts adapt to sea-level rise

Published: 25 October 2013Origin: Engineering

A team of scientists, led by the University of Southampton, has developed a new method to help the world’s coasts adapt to global sea-level rises over the next 100 years.

Future sea-level rise seems inevitable, although the rates and geographical patterns of change remain uncertain. Given the large and growing populations and economic activity in coastal zones, as well as the importance of coastal ecosystems, the potential impacts of sea-level change are far-reaching.

Current methods to assess the potential impact of sea-level rise have varied significantly and hindered the development of useful scenarios and in turn, suitable adaption policies and planning.

A new study led by Professor Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton, has combined the available data on a number of different climate and non-climate (such as uplift, subsidence and natural phenomena - earthquakes for example) mechanisms, which contribute to sea-level change, to create appropriate scenarios of sea-level rise at any location when policy-makers consider impacts and adaption.

Professor Robert Nicholls says: “The goal here is not to ‘scare people’ but rather to encourage policy makers to think across the full range of possibilities. Hence, the problem can be addressed in a progressive and adaptive manner where sea-level rise is planned for now, and that plan includes monitoring and learning about sea-level change over the coming decades. This means that sea-level rise can be fully prepared for without over-adapting.

“Given that the uncertainties of sea-level rise are global, this approach will probably be widely applicable around the world’s coasts, especially in major coastal cities with high values and growing flood risk.”

To help develop the scenarios, the scientists from the universities of Southampton, Durham, Reading and Curtin University in Australia, along with the United Nations Development Programme, considered a wide range of situations - from cases of little data and few or no previous studies, to those where significant data and experience of earlier studies are available. This allowed them to explore the full range of uncertainties and risks to avoid estimates of sea-level impacts being made invalid every time new projections were published.

The timescale for the study is between 30 and 100 years into the future as this corresponds to the most relevant timescales considered for most developments in coastal zones.

Professor Nicholls adds: “The robustness of these results will vary according to the data available and/or the assumptions made for each sea-level change component, so these assumptions should always be explicit within the assessment report.”

The paper ‘Sea-level scenarios for evaluating coastal impacts’ is published in the journal WIREs Climate Change. It is based on guidance on producing sea-level rise scenarios for impact and adaptation assessment, which was developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Task Group on Scenarios for Climate Impact Assessment (TGCIA) and available on their web site -- http://www.ipcc-data.org/docs/Sea_Level_Scenario_Guidance_Oct2011.pdf

Notes for editors

1. A copy of the paper ‘Sea-level scenarios for evaluating coastal impacts’’ is available from Media Relations on request.
2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship across a wide range of subjects in engineering, science, social sciences, health and humanities.
With over 23,000 students, around 5000 staff, and an annual turnover well in excess of £435 million, the University of Southampton is acknowledged as one of the country's top institutions for engineering, computer science and medicine. We combine academic excellence with an innovative and entrepreneurial approach to research, supporting a culture that engages and challenges students and staff in their pursuit of learning.

The University is also home to a number of world-leading research centres including the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, the Institute for Life Sciences, the Web Science Trust and Doctoral training Centre, the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute and is a partner of the National Oceanography Centre at the Southampton waterfront campus. https://www.southampton.ac.uk/  

For further information contact:

Glenn Harris, Media Relations, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 3212, email: G.Harris@soton.ac.uk  

www.soton.ac.uk/mediacentre/

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