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May 23, 2024

Sinking Cities: Large Swaths of US East Coast at Risk from Accelerating Subsidence

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Jan 6, 2024

Sections of the US Atlantic coastline from North Carolina to Massachusetts are sinking into the ocean at alarming rates, threatening critical infrastructure and communities, according to multiple new studies.

Accelerating Subsidence Spotted Along Nearly 1,000 Miles of Coast

New satellite imagery and GPS data reveals that parts of the East Coast are subsiding over 5 times faster than global sea levels are rising. Areas from North Carolina up through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are all experiencing above average sinking, ranging from 1 mm to over 10 mm per year.

Coastal geoscientist Chris Shirzaei tweeted that the extent of land movement he’s witnessing is “jaw-dropping” – spanning nearly 1,000 miles of the Eastern Seaboard. While sea levels are climbing approximately 3 mm annually due to climate change, some urban sections are plunging downward at 10 times that pace.

Catastrophic Impacts if Acceleration Continues

At the current rapid rate of subsidence, compounded by rising oceans, experts warn that many East Coast cities could sink over 6 feet by 2100. Large areas of coastal highways, subway systems, tunnels, bridges, power plants, hazardous waste sites, real estate developments, and other critical infrastructure could become partly or fully submerged.

Boston’s Logan International Airport is an example already experiencing issues, sinking into muddy land at nearly 1 inch per year. Runways keep settling, requiring constant repaving to maintain safe operations.

If accelerating land movement isn’t addressed, researchers say iconic waterfront cities like New York and Washington DC risk having their skylines fully submerged in the not too distant future.

City Subsidence Rate
New York City 4 to 6 mm/year
Washington DC Over 5 mm/year
Norfolk, VA 7.6 mm/year
Atlantic City, NJ 5 mm/year

Subsidence rates for some East Coast urban areas

Groundwater & Oil/Gas Extraction Blamed

The primary causes of worsening coastal land sinking appear to be excessive groundwater pumping and removal of underground oil/gas deposits. As water and fuel gets extracted, layers of soil and rock compress downwards, dropping surface elevations.

In areas like the mid-Atlantic’s Chesapeake Bay, groundwater usage has dramatically accelerated to support expanding suburbs, industry, and agriculture. GPS readings clearly show the land deforming downwards rapidly as aquifers become drained.

Meanwhile, soil compaction from construction of massive urban centers like NYC is also likely contributing to subsidence in that region specifically.

emergency Response Recommended Before Situation Worsens

Researchers are urging federal and local officials to quickly respond before sinking gets even more extreme. Steps like monitoring groundwater withdrawals, restricting development on vulnerable soils, or injecting water back underground could help stabilize and possibly reverse downward movement.

Without intervention, scientists believe the sprawling zone of subsidence – already impacting areas inhabited by millions – may broaden and quicken in the years ahead. That could put many more miles of essential infrastructure in jeopardy across a densely populated corridor housing 1 in 6 Americans.

Table 2 shows estimates of the current population living above sinking coastal land:

State Residents on Subsiding Land
New York Over 8,000,000
New Jersey Over 3,500,000
North Carolina Nearly 500,000
Virginia Over 150,000

Approximate population of East Coast states residing in subsiding coastal areas

Long Term Outlook Hinges on Climate Mitigation

In addition to the ongoing mechanical causes of plunging elevations, experts say medium and long term outcomes will depend significantly on how much climate change can be restrained worldwide.

Under lower emissions scenarios, seas along the Eastern US are projected to rise 1 to 2 feet by 2100. But under higher emissions scenarios, increases up to 6 feet are possible. Combined with worse case sinking forecasts, mid-Atlantic and Northeastern cities could be immersed far more severely.

So while methods exist to slow or halt land subsidence itself, truly protecting the long term future of East Coast population centers will require aggressively cutting greenhouse gases across the globe, researchers emphasize.

Conclusion: Race to Save Vanishing Shoreline Has Begun

Taken together, the recent findings paint an alarming picture – a sprawling region, home to tens of millions and containing Founding Fathers’ capital Washington DC itself, may be only decades away from seeing its coastlines vanish underwater.

With land falling faster than seas are swelling, experts agree quick action is crucial to reverse the plunging shoreline. But permanently securing the future vitality of East Coast cities could depend just as much on decisive climate action worldwide.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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