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Atmosphere, Biosphere, Climate, Cryosphere, Geosphere, Oceans



History provides many examples of nature's impact on civilizations that developed too close to the water. Herakleion and Eastern Canopus on Egypt's northern coast, for example, were cities of grandeur and important trading centers. Both now lie under the waters of a shallow bay. And Atlit-Yam, a well preserved village dating back to about 7000 BC near Haifa, Israel, now lies hidden under the Mediterranean Sea. If you want to see the sun from the ruins of these and other ancient cities, you have to do so looking up through meters of sea water.

Rising sea level is an ancient problem that has come back into focus because of climate change. It is a major concern for the Maldives where the president and his ministers held a cabinet meeting underwater to call attention to the potential threat to this low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean.

Sea Level rise is a hot topic for research, debate and conjecture. Close to 55% of the United States population lives within 50 miles of the coast. Scientists are interested in why global sea level changes and at what rate. Research shows, that changes to sea levels are not the same around the world.

Rising sea levels were addressed by the International Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. In the reports on "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability" are sections on Coastal Systems and Low Lying Areas and Small Islands.


Basic Tasking. Your group has been approached by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), tasked with environmental planning and global climate change. Because of your training in Earth system science, they have asked you to help them address the implications of potential sea level rise on salt marshes along the southeastern United States.

Comprehensive Tasking. Based on your group's background in oceanography, the North Carolina Environmental Management Committee has asked your group to estimate sea level rise along North Carolina's coasts in the next 50 years. They are interested in likely Earth systems' changes and need an assessment of the possible impacts from economic, social and political perspectives.


Date: 12/19/2009

Scenario Images:

U.S. underwater
Is this what the future holds? Image courtesy of the Phoenix Project Foundation.

NASA chart for sea level increases
The graph suggests average sea levels increased 3 millimeters per year between 1993 and 2005. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory. See Larger Image

Potential impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh
"Potential impact of sea-level rise on Bangladesh." UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. 2000. UNEP/GRID-Arendal. 30 Jan 2010



Consequences of Climate Change May Include Sea Level Rise (Cycle A)
From the American Museum of Natural History: "Potential consequences of climate change include...decreased water supplies from reduced winter snow packs and loss of mountain glaciers, and rising sea level."


IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (Cycle A)
Scroll down to chapter 5.5: "Present-day sea level change is of considerable interest because of its potential impact on human populations living in coastal regions and on islands. This section focuses on global and regional sea level variations, over time spans ranging from the last decade to the past century; a brief discussion of sea level change in previous centuries is given in Section Changes over previous millennia are discussed in Section 6.4.3."


Our Ocean planet (Cycle A)
Robert Stewart's "Our Ocean Planet." Look for the section on coastal problems.


Satellite Oceanography and Climatology Division: Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry (Cycle A)
Satellite altimeter observations from the RADS database system are used for determining global and regional mean sea level trends from 1992 to the present, as well as sea level trend maps.


Sea Level Rise Research Program The Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise (Cycle A)
"Worldwide sea level has risen about 20 cm during the past century and will inevitably be affected by climate change in the future. The rate of sea level rise during the twentieth century has been nearly 2 mm per year, which is an order of magnitude higher than the average over the last several millennia."


Sea Level Rise Website (Cycle A)
In Hawaii, sea-level rise resulting from global warming is a particular concern. Riding on the rising water are high waves, hurricanes, and tsunami that will be able to penetrate further inland with every fraction of rising tide. In addition, the coastal groundwater table is likely to crop out above ground level and lead to widespread flooding.


Sea Levels Online (Cycle A)
Information for coastal sea levels throughout the United States.


Coastal Erosion, Global Sea-Level Rise, and Loss of Sand Dune Plant Habitats (Cycle B)
Much of America's coastline is threatened by overdevelopment and coastal erosion, driven by global sea-level rise, a problem that is attracting the attention of researchers around the world. Although we have now acknowledged the impending risks, little is known about the response of spatially dependent dune plant communities to the loss or restriction of their habitat.


Coastal Zones and Sea Level Rise (Cycle B)
Coastal zones are particularly vulnerable to climate variability and change. Key concerns include sea level rise, land loss, changes in maritime storms and flooding, responses to sea level rise and implications for water resources.


NOAA and EPA Partnership on Coastal Management (Cycle B)
"The Coastal Community Development Partnership brings together NOAA and EPA offices to better support state and local governments as they promote safer and smarter development along the coast."


NOAA's Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Frequency Viewer (Cycle B)
Use the slider bar beside the map to see how rates of sea level rise will impact a community. Flooding frequency information is also provided. This visualization tool (the prototype was developed for Wilmington, Delaware) is helpful for those involved in coastal planning and any effort to educate citizens about local sea level rise issues. See also Digital Coast, from the NOAA Coastal Services Center.


Sea Level Rise, After the Ice Melted and Today (Cycle B)
"Global sea level has fluctuated widely in the recent geologic past. It stood 4-6 meters above the present during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, but was 120 meters lower at the peak of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago."


Subsidence and Sea Level Rise in Louisiana: A Study in Disappearing Land (Cycle B)
"July 21, 2003 — Subsidence, or land sinking, is one of the main causes of coastal erosion and land loss in Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf states. Land loss rates have fluctuated over the years and recent studies show the rates have been reduced from 39 square miles per year between 1956 and 1978 to 24 square miles per year from 1990 to 2000."


Nova's Mountain of Ice: Impact of Ice Melting (Cycle C)
This site allows viewers to observe the impact of ice melt on the United States' coastlines. The worst-case scenario is a complete collapse of the sheet, which would increase sea levels by as much as 20 feet.


Ocean Literacy (Cycle C)
"An understanding of the oceans influence on you and your influence on the ocean." contains links to the Ocean Literacy Principles.


Sea Level Rise: A Case Study (Cycle C)
This is an interesting web site from a non profit organization, Architecture 2030. The organization is clearly on the side of addressing climate change. This site looks at the effects of sea level rise. Challenge your students to find sites suggesting something different. Here is a quote from the site:
"The US populace has been somewhat complacent thus far in aggressively confronting global warming. There is the notion, advanced by both the media and the many studies on the impacts of climate change, that the wealthier countries in the West will be best able to adapt, and the underdeveloped countries will bear the brunt of the impacts."


Sample Investigations:


Climate Change and Sea Level Rise (Cycle A)
"In this lesson, students will practice the steps involved in a scientific investigation as they learn why ice formations on land -- not those on water -- will cause a rise in sea level upon melting."
Difficulty: beginner


Concept Map Builder (Cycle A)
Go to the COSEE concept map builder for a tool that will assist your study of science, e.g., global climate change or ocean science.
Difficulty: beginner


Rising Waters (5-8 but can be expanded) (Cycle A)
Students will observe what would happen to the Earth if the sea were to rise.
Difficulty: beginner


DLESE Teaching Box: Changing Sea Level (6-12) (Cycle B)
"This teaching box focuses on the concept that changes in sea level have occurred in the past, are occurring now, and will continue to occur.

The unit provides an inquiry-based exploration of the lines of evidence for periodic melting of ice and resulting sea level rise: glacial evidence, geologic evidence, fossil evidence, and isotopic evidence. Students learn about the worldwide effects of sea level changes in the past and then use a study on topography and sea level to demonstrate their understanding of impact of sea level change on flora, fauna, and human society."
Difficulty: beginner


Thermal Expansion and Sea Level Rise (COSEE) (Cycle B)
This activity provides an opportunity for students to investigate how thermal expansion of water affects sea level rise. The suggested lab activity allows students to observe and describe the change in water level in a container when the water is exposed to heat.
Difficulty: beginner


Thermal Expansion and Sea Level Rise (COSEE) (Cycle B)
This activity provides an opportunity for students to investigate how thermal expansion of water affects sea level rise. The suggested lab activity allows students to observe and describe the change in water level in a container when the water is exposed to heat.
Difficulty: beginner


Antarctic Ice: Sea Level Change (Cycle C)
"This video segment, adapted from a NOVA broadcast, explains what might happen to global sea level if atmospheric warming caused the collapse and melting of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. The segment is three minutes nineteen seconds in length."
Difficulty: beginner


High-Resolution Sea Level Rise Effects in Google Earth (Cycle C)
Showing the effects of coastal sea level rise in Google Earth with high spatial resolution, both static and animated. See Also: Sea Level Rise Google Mapplet
Difficulty: beginner


Using Google Earth to Observe Sea Level Change (Cycle C)
This lesson uses Google Earth to investigate the impact of sea level change on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Transfer of energy
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Populations and ecosystems
        • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
        • Earth's history
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
        • Risks and benefits
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Motions and forces
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Geochemical cycles
        • Origin and evolution of the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Population growth
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Nature of scientific knowledge
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • understand various types of patterns and functional relationships;
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      • The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and software.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
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