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Rising seas could submerge Rio and Jakarta by 2100 – what can we do?

Smart engineering solutions such as “sand motors” and artificial reefs will defend our coasts for a while. But in many places, conversations are already turning to a managed retreat inland

Environment 23 February 2022

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A MINATH SHAUNA grew up on the Addu Atoll, a small group of islands in the Maldives whose villages and beach resorts are spread around a central lagoon. When viewed from above, it all looks about as permanent as the ring left by a coffee cup.

Low-lying islands like those of the Maldives, where half a million people live barely a metre above the Indian Ocean, are ground zero when it comes to the threat of rising sea levels driven by global warming. “One of my earliest memories is of a tidal swell and a big breadfruit tree falling down right in front of our house,” says Aminath, now in her 30s. “This is something I have grown up with.”

But the effects of rising seas will be felt far and wide. In the worst-case scenario, average sea level could rise by nearly 2.5 metres this century. Even a fraction of this would be catastrophic. Globally, over a quarter of a billion people live less than 2 metres above sea level, including in cities such as Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro and Miami.

Aminath knows this all too well. As the environment and climate change minister for the Maldives, she is part of a community of politicians and scientists trying to work out how quickly sea levels will rise, if this can be slowed and what it means for us all. In some places, new ways of holding back the tide may buy us a few decades. Elsewhere, this won’t be possible. We are facing a disaster unfolding in slow motion. Responding effectively means a sea change in the way we …