The Watery Future

Post by Nic Quattromani:

This entry’s going to differ a bit from the stated mission of this website, focusing on Earth rather than the far-flung worlds of the wider universe. It’s still about the future, though, and that future might still be radiant, even if there’s going to be a lot more water in it than we’re used to.

A few years ago an urban planner named Jeffrey Linn used topographic data to map several major cities, then subject them to more than eighty meters of sea level rise.  Los Angeles fared about as badly as you’d expect.

Inside The Business of Organics
Los Angeles. (Map: Courtesy

You’ll note that Seattle is a cluster of islands where once there was an isthmus between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. It’s got a healthy dose of Pacific Northwest hilliness, though, so the damage is not so bad as it might otherwise be.

Seattle Glacier Water
Seattle. (Map: Courtesy

Portland, meanwhile, was a surprise for me when I saw it: I did not expect my neck of the woods, comfortably inland, to suddenly play host to the Willamette Sea.

Portland Glacier Water
Portland. (Map: Courtesy

Just look at that thing. Portland’s going to have to relocate onto the brand-new Portland Peninsula (currently a wonderful park, that will be missed), and countless little towns in the hills will be open to the international shipping business.

Now, I’m not going to focus too much on the negative aspects of this. They should be obvious: ocean water is wet and salty and irritating, and it gets everywhere. To quantify things a bit, over the next thirty years sea level rise will render unusable more than one hundred twenty billion dollars’ worth of US homes (Source: Digital Journal). Florida and Delaware might completely disappear.  The loss of low-lying Bangladesh could send over a hundred million refugees into an already struggling world.

Some of the good news is, not all possible sea level rise is fated to happen. The above scenarios that Jeffrey Linn so beautifully illustrated are based on the melting of all of Earth’s ice sheets (making oceans 80 meters higher), which would take over 5,000 years unless we screw things up spectacularly (National Geographic).  The year 2100 might see only 2.5 meters, likely less (

While climate action now will save cities in the future, even if we drop the ball and commit to more sea level rise, the result will be less of a sudden flood and more of a steady march, drawn out over centuries, giving us as a species at least some time to move our people inland, increase defenses against floods, and perhaps redesign our cities to rise out of shallow coastal waters. I can easily imagine Portland reinvented as a new Venice, or houseboats lining the numerous inlets of the Willamette Sea (a fascinating piece of future geography).  Seattle could learn to function as a conglomeration of islands, each practically sagging under the weight of vast, shining spires, linked together by high-speed tram lines and solar-powered boats. Whole industries could sprout up just from salvage divers recovering what could not be removed in time from flooding coastal cities. There’s crisis in our future, but there’s also opportunity, and if we do not take drastic action to mitigate climate change—which we must, make no mistake—there will still be a path forward.


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