A Century of Change in 30 Years

Climate change is not off in some distant future: 2050 is less than 30 years away, and the tides are rising now.

A black-and-white photo of a man sitting in a convertible on the beach, smoking a pipe. The name "Enrique" is written in the margin of the photo.

My grandfather at the beach, ca. 1950, when sea levels in the contiguous U.S. averaged about 8 inches lower than today

Climate change is here. The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, says so plainly and urgently. The report describes our present and future in clear and definitive statements, like “Climate change has already had diverse adverse impacts on human systems, including on water security and food production, health and well-being, and cities, settlements and infrastructure.

But the climate change prediction that hits me hardest is a warning from the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Level Rise Technical Report: that the United States will see as much sea level rise in the next 30 years as it did in the entire previous century. 

Thirty years is an undeniably human time scale, compared to the hundreds or even thousands of years often referenced in climate studies. It’s the length of a standard mortgage, or about the average age when American parents have their first kid. The IPCC and NOAA reports have a wealth of highly detailed scientific information, but that 30-year figure seems personal. I’m in my thirties now; three decades is not a very long time.

My maternal grandfather, Enrique, was born in 1920 in Popayán, Colombia. He was from the mountains but he loved the ocean—who doesn’t? When my brother and I were kids, we’d visit our grandparents at their home in Florida, about five miles from the Atlantic Ocean. At the beach, my grandfather would float on his back in the water, bobbing up and down with only his face and stomach peeking out of the waves.

Grandpa Enrique lived to be 99, and his lifetime lines up almost perfectly with the 1920–2020 period used as a reference by the NOAA report. During that period, relative sea levels in the contiguous United States rose about 12 inches, on average.

Twelve inches is a lot, especially considering that my grandparents’ Florida neighborhood was (when they lived there, at least) about 10 feet above sea level. But 100 years is also a long time. I’m thinking about everything my grandfather saw during his life: regime changes, a world war, the rise of air travel, the Internet. (An early adopter of technology, he liked to send short, newsy emails with subject lines like “Un poquito de todo.”) I’m thinking about that century’s worth of change, packed into just 30 years.

Figure 2.2. Observation-based extrapolations using tide-gauge data and five scenarios, in meters, for a) global mean sea level and b) relative sea levels for the contiguous United States from 2020 to 2050 relative to a baseline of 2000.

Graphs from Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States illustrate sea level rise scenarios through 2050.

Credit: Figure 2.2. from Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States: Updated Mean Projections and Extreme Water Level Probabilities Along U.S. Coastlines, NOAA Technical Report NOS 01.

The youngest member of my family is my cousin’s two-year-old daughter. She’s a pandemic baby and we haven’t met in person yet, but I’ve seen pictures of her at the beach and it’s clear that she loves it. The New York coast that she likes to visit already sees about one day of high tide flooding per month. That’s up from five days per year in 2000, on the way to multiple times per week by 2050.

Between now and my baby cousin’s thirtieth birthday, average sea levels around the U.S. will have risen about another 12 inches—at least. My family mostly lives along the East and Gulf coasts, where relative sea level rise during 2020–2050 will be more like 14 or even 18 inches, due to land subsidence and other regional factors. The previous 12 inches of sea level rise took the entirety of my grandfather’s long life, but my cousin might still be in school when the beaches where she plays today are under another foot of water.

Photo of a toddler standing in front of bicycles at the beach.

Me at the beach, ca. 1988, when I was around the age my baby cousin is now—and when sea levels in the contiguous U.S. averaged about 5 inches lower than today.

Sea level rise beyond 2050 is a bit more uncertain—but 2050 is less than 30 years away, and the tides are rising now. This is why we need floodplain development standards that look to the future, and not the past; this is why we need to make sure we’re not building infrastructure and government facilities that will soon go underwater. This is why we need better emergency management capacity, more equitable and accessible resilience funding, and new tools to apply lessons from past disasters. This is why we need to work now to address the underlying social factors that create the disproportionate burdens of climate change

Climate change is not off in some distant future. I can see the rising seas in the simple history of my family, and we’re among the privileged ones who haven’t (yet) lost a home or a job or a loved one to a storm or flood. Even if we don’t notice the effects in our daily lives, they’re here and now, and there’s no time to waste.

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