Waves Lapping at Your Door

Waves Lapping at Your Door

Maureen Raymo with portable GPS to track sea level rise.

Maureen Raymo with portable GPS to track sea level rise.

Maureen Raymo and colleagues study how sea level is changing now and in the past using instruments installed along coastal areas today and geologic records of historic change.

The world’s coastal regions are home to hundreds of millions of people and many of the world’s largest cities. They already face significant challenges related to global warming and sea level rise. In Miami, recurring flooding of low-lying neighborhoods after heavy storms and during extreme seasonal tides is projected to increase in severity, with urban planners describing adaptive measures that will likely cost billions of dollars as sea level creeps inexorably higher.

How storm surges and tidal energy and height will evolve with changing sea levels is one of the many research projects underway at the Center for Climate and Life. As sea level rises, will coral reefs continue to absorb and dissipate incoming energy from waves? How will wave energy be distributed between the outer reefs and inner lagoons? At what rate of sea level rise will a coral reef be incapable of “catching up” with sea level? Most importantly, how will these changes impact vulnerable coastal populations as well as the health and stability of these economically-valuable reef ecosystems? These are some of the questions we address with our research.

Research teams are working in French Polynesia, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean, where we have installed instruments along coastal areas to measure the modern hydrodynamic processes, focusing on low- to super-energy wave settings. At the same time, we are studying the geologic record of sea level during previous warm periods in order to gather insights on sea level variability and rates of change in the past. By investigating both paleo and modern processes, we hope to better understand the likely response of coastal systems to the rise in sea levels predicted to unfold over the coming decades.   —Maureen Raymo