Washington: A study has found that rising sea levels will impact humans living well beyond coastal cities.
University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers say estimates that are based on current, static population data can greatly misrepresent the true extent of the human toll of climate change.
"Not all places and not all people in those places will be impacted equally," Katherine Curtis, an assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at UW-Madison, said.
In a new online report Curtis and her colleague Annemarie Schneider examined the impacts of rising oceans as one element of how a changing climate will affect humans.
"We're linking economic and social vulnerability with environmental vulnerability to better understand which areas and their populations are most vulnerable," Curtis said.
They used existing climate projections and maps to identify areas at risk of inundation from rising sea levels and storm surges, such as the one that breached New Orleans levees after Hurricane Katrina, then coupled those vulnerability assessments with projections for future populations.
"Time scales for climate models and time scales for human demography are completely different," Schneider, part of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, explained.
"Future climate scenarios typically span 50 to 100 years or more. That's unreasonable for demographic projections, which are often conducted on the order of decades," she said.
The current study works to better align population and climate data in both space and time, allowing the researchers to describe social and demographic dimensions of environmental vulnerability.
"No area is completely isolated, and migration networks are one of the ways we think about connections across places. Through these networks, environmental impacts will have a ripple effect," Curtis said.
Curtis and Schneider designed their approach with an eye toward helping local authorities identify and best respond to their own needs.
Even using rough estimates of sea level rise, their analysis makes clear that planning ahead for mitigation and adaptation will be crucial, Schneider said.
"As we anticipate future events, future natural disasters, we've learned how dramatic it can be - and there are things that can be done in advance to mitigate the extent of damage in a location," Curtis stated.
The report will be published in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal Population and Environment.
First Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011, 16:16