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It's not just sea level rise: the land on which major cities are built is sinking, NASA images show.

It's not just sea level rise: the land on which major cities are built is sinking, NASA images show.


Rising sea levels threaten the U.S. East Coast, but that's not the only thing to worry about, according to NASA. Images shared by the space agency on Tuesday show the coastline is sinking, including land that is home to major cities like New York and Baltimore.

A NASA-funded team of scientists working at Virginia Tech's Earth Observation and Innovation Lab found that the geographic problem is “occurring fast enough to threaten the infrastructure, agricultural lands and wetlands that depend on tens of millions of people along the coast,” NASA said.

Scientists examined satellite data and GPS sensors to monitor coastal movement and found that infrastructure in major cities like New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, Virginia, is built on land that sank between 2007 and 2020 .or sunk, an average of 1 to 2 millimeters per year, but some counties in Delaware, Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia saw their lands sink two or three times as fast.

Scientists looked at satellite data and GPS sensors to monitor coastline movement and found that major city infrastructure, like these, is built on land sunk between 2007 and 2020. NASA

Swamp land is sinking more than 3 millimeters per year, scientists have found. Forests have also been displaced due to saltwater intrusion and land subsidence.

And it's not just wildlife that's affected. Along the coast, at least 897,000 structures – including highways and airports – sit on sinking land.

The results, which follow another study from the Virginia Tech laboratory, were published in PNAS Nexus.

The maps shared by NASA were created using data from satellites in the United States, Japan and Europe. They show that the Mid-Atlantic region is sinking further, due to the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which began to retreat 12,000 years ago, causing subsidence of the region. The sinking continues today and is conversely causing the uprising of parts of the United States and Canada.

One of the fastest sinking cities is Charleston, whose downtown is just 10 feet above sea level. The city experiences subsidence of about 4 millimeters per year. About 800,000 people live in the city and some of the sinking is caused by human activities like pumping groundwater, according to NASA.

To prevent tidal flooding, the city plans to build an 8-mile seawall to protect against storm surges.

Charleston experiences the worst subsidence, sinking about 4 millimeters each year. NASA

Leonard Ohenhen, a geophysicist at Virginia Tech, called the issue of subsidence “pernicious” and “neglected” compared to sea level rise. But it is still a major problem and the Coastal residents could see more damage to their homes, saltwater infiltration into farms and freshwater supplies, and other problems.

Subsidence, however, is a problem that can be slowed locally, said Manoochehr Shirzaei, co-author of both studies and director of the Virginia Tech laboratory. Groundwater extraction as well as dams and other infrastructure can also cause subsidence.

The lab will then use these research techniques on the Gulf Coast, with the goal of mapping every coastline in the world, Shirzaei said.

Protecting the planet: news and reports on climate change More More Caitlin O'Kane




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