Cities Along the East Coast Are Sinking

It's a matter of millimeters, but researchers say it's a cause of real concern
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 7, 2024 5:20 PM CST
Cities Along the East Coast Are Sinking
An aerial view of the Baltimore downtown skyline, one of the cities particularly at risk of rapid land subsidence.   (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Here's a new one for your climate change Bingo card. Major cities along the Atlantic coast are sinking, Virginia Tech News reports, with rates in some areas that outpace global sea level rise. A paper published by researchers from Virginia Tech in PNAS Nexus analyzed radar datasets to observe land subsidence (which occurs when the Earth's surface sinks) along the East Coast. Vast portions of elevation were settling at least 2mm per year, while stretches of coastal land in the mid-Atlantic were sinking more than 5mm per year, faster than the annual global rate of sea level rise (4mm). While speaking in millimeters might seem inconsequential, the paper's lead author Leonard Ohenhen warns, "it may be gradual, but the impacts are real."

Land subsidence isn't friendly to roads, railways, airports, and levees, which will all be influenced by differing subsidence rates. Ohenhen, a graduate student at Virginia Tech's Earth Observation and Innovation Lab, says the problem lies within "hotspots of sinking land" that are critical to infrastructure. "For example, significant areas of critical infrastructure in New York, including JFK and LaGuardia airports and its runways, along with the railway systems, are affected by subsidence rates exceeding 2mm per year," he says. He and his team used data points from space radar satellites to measure changes over multiple years, then created terrain map that highlights where infrastructure is at risk from sinking elevation. Besides New York, other cities affected included Baltimore, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach.

"The effects of these right now and into the future are potential damage to infrastructure and increased flood risks," says Ohenhen. Groundwater extraction and sediment compaction from urban weight are examples of the human-caused factors in urban areas. Newsweek notes that this is hardly an issue confined to the East Coast. Across the planet, any land that touches water, especially low-lying coastal areas and small island nations, are particularly at risk. "As sea levels continue to rise, coastal areas are at risk of flooding, coastal erosion, and salinization of soils and water sources," says senior scientist at the United Nations University Zita Sebesvari. "Erosion and flooding can damage infrastructure, homes, and businesses, and even displace people from their homes." (Indonesia is planning to replace its sinking capital city.)

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