Sea Level Rise + Earthquakes +Tsunamis = More Coastal Flooding Ahead

Sep 5, 2018

A first of its kind study finds, even a small rise in sea level could lead to more coastal flooding worldwide.  A team of scientists, including experts from Virginia Tech, predicts a warming planet will see more ‘worst case scenarios’ more often if nothing is done to prevent it.

Credit walrus.wr.usgs.gov

Using new super computers running thousands of scenarios, the researchers looked at earthquakes that trigger tsunamis. Currently, quakes large enough to create waves that cause major flooding are relatively rare, but the models showed that as sea levels rise, much smaller earthquakes could do it.  A magnitude 3 or 4 earthquake would act like an 8.8 or 9.

Geoscientist Robert Weiss is director of Virginia's Disaster Resilience and Risk Management program. “The interesting thing is that smaller earthquakes are much more frequent than bigger earthquakes, so the frequency of flooding increases quite significantly” as sea levels rise.

Weiss hopes these findings catch the attention of policy makers and lead to sustained dialogue on the subject.  

Robert Weiss and his partners, including Lin Lin Li, a senior research fellow, and Adam Switzer, an associate professor, at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, created computer-simulated tsunamis at current sea level and with sea-level increases of 1.5 feet and 3 feet in the Chinese territory of Macau.
Credit Virginia Tech

“If you imagine you don’t do anything for a while and then a big storm hits and wipes out a community, we not only have a tragic loss of life, but we also interrupt economies.  And, given our globalization, that might cascade a more global disaster rather than staying local at the community where the Tsunami or storm impacted.”

Weiss will continue studying potential future tsunami effects from sea level rise worldwide, and what it might mean for the United States' East and West coasts.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.