The sea level is rising twice as fast as previously forecast around parts of New Zealand, research published yesterday showed, putting the nation’s two largest cities at risk decades earlier than expected.
Government-backed data amassed from around the country’s coastline found that some areas are already sinking 3mm to 4mm per year, speeding up a long-expected threat.
The projections, labeled “a bit terrifying” by one expert, are the result of an extensive five-year, government-funded research program —NZ SeaRise — that was the combined work of dozens of local and international scientists.
Their prognosis means authorities have much less time than expected to introduce climate adaptation plans, including relocating coastal communities.
NZ SeaRise coleader Tim Naish, a professor at Wellington’s Victoria University, said that while the global sea level is expected to rise about half a meter by 2100, it could be closer to 1m for substantial parts of New Zealand because the land is sinking at the same time.
It is stark news for the capital, Wellington, which could expect a sea level rise of 30cm by 2040 — a level that had not been expected before 2060.
With that rate of increase, Wellington residents could expect once-a-century flood damage every year on average.
“We have less time to act,” Naish said. “You are going to see the impacts of quite damaging sea level rise much sooner than we thought. Roads and properties will be inundated.”
“Yes, it is a bit terrifying, but there is still time and I think that is the way to look at it,” he added.
Data show the southeast coastline of the more-populated North Island is the most exposed, but numerous seaside communities and towns would be hit.
Auckland, which with 1.7 million residents is the nation’s largest city, is especially vulnerable.
It is predicted that the sea level would rise 50 percent faster in the city’s downtown waterfront and in several central-city suburbs, with wide-ranging implications for house prices and insurance rates.
NZ SeaRise has developed an online tool to let residents and authorities check forecasts for their own stretch of coast, allowing them to assess the risk of flooding and erosion.
“We still have time, but we don’t have time to sit on our hands anymore,” Naish said.
“If you’re a council representative or you’re a developer, or you’re a decisionmaker in the coastal areas of New Zealand, you need to start thinking right now what the plan is for adapting to that sea level rise,” he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said adaptation planning was under way, including budgeting for the relocation of some communities and infrastructure away from vulnerable coastlines.
“The first port of call isn’t necessarily managed retreat, because there are a range of options that can be used,” she told Radio New Zealand.
“We’re working alongside local government and insurers to work through who bears the costs of some of these options. The cost that needs to be borne, won’t fall on one party,” she said.
New Zealanders should not accept that sea level rises are inevitable beyond those predicted for the near term, and that every citizen should do all they can to reduce emissions and diminish the impacts of climate change, she said.
Global sea level rise is caused by thermal expansion of the ocean, by melting land-based glaciers, and by the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
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