Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels

Arctic Sea. Photo courtesy of 


Many people ask me,

What do you think of global warming?
Is it real?
...Then why are some parts of the Earth colder than average?

 My response is always,

Change your question. Do I believe in global climate change?

Global climate change is a naturally occurring process. The Earth’s temperature and carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated naturally for thousands of years. However, in the past century humans have offset this natural fluctuation by rapidly increasing our carbon dioxide emissions. More carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere result in extreme weather patterns and events. In the past century, New York seas have risen by about one foot. It may not sound like a lot, but the increase in water levels fueled the disastrous Superstorm Sandy which went in the history books as the second costliest Atlantic hurricane in United States history. More recently, the 2014 Polar Vortex caused temperatures in the Midwest and East Coast to plummet to temperatures in the -37F range (#luckywelivehawaii)

As greenhouse gasses build up, they inhibit heat from being released from Earth back into the atmosphere resulting in a rise in land and ocean temperature in some areas. As water temperature increases, it expands. This process is known as thermal expansion, which leads to a rise in sea level. Warmer land temperatures contribute to melting sea ice, which also increases sea levels. Much of the economic and societal damage seen, comes from extreme weather events which are exacerbated by the higher sea level (Boettle et. al. 2016).

The rise in sea levels has been referred to as a “slow moving tsunami” by PBS representative William Brangham. Recent predictions expect a rise of 2.5-6.5ft by 2100 (National Geographic).

Living on an island surrounded by water makes rising sea level is a continuous issue. When sea water surges inland it can have devastating effects on coastal habitats, causing erosion, flooding, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and loss of habitat. Maui is fortunate to have elevations that range from sea level up to 10,023ft. We have some wiggle room to work with as the sea level continues to rise. Other islands in the Pacific are not so lucky. Parts of Kiribati have already flooded and towns had to be permanently relocated. The Seychelles, Micronesia, and the Maldives will be completely underwater with a sea level rise of only 1-1.3meters (Astaiza, 2012). Tegua is an island that is coupled with low elevation and sinking land. With 100 residents on the island, they were declared by the United Nations as the first place to have climate change refugees in 2015 (National Geographic). 

Video: A glimpse of Kiribati, an island nation facing rising seas - Conservation International by Conservation International.

Landlocked areas are not completely in the clear from the effects of rising sea levels. As stated previously, rising sea levels cause an increase major storms. The Polar Vortex, for example, started with melting sea ice way up in the Arctic. This not only increased the water level but also altered the salinity of the water in the area. The result? A slowdown of the oceanic conveyor belt which previously acted as a barrier, keeping cold weather north. Colder Arctic weather was able to move farther south than in the past.

Climate change and a rising sea level are inevitable. In December 2015 the United Nations met in Paris at the UN Climate Change Conference. Representatives of 196 parties from around the world accepted the Paris Agreement, which is a global agreement on the reduction of climate change. Individualls can support the movement to drastically lower C02 emission levels as well as short-term pollutants: black carbon, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs (Freedman 2013). CO2 emissions stay in the atmosphere for centuries and even if we drastically lowered our impacts them yesterday we would still see the detrimental effects long into the future. It is important to remember: short-term pollutants are just that, and they remain in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time. This means the reduction of their presence in the atmosphere now will potentially produce beneficial outcomes sooner.

Our past, our present and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now.
— Sylvia Earle explorer, author, lecturer, marine biologist and first female chief scientist for NOAA.

By Conservation and Education Director Magen Schifiliti


Astaiza R. 2013. 11 Islands that will vanish when sea levels rise. Business Insider. 10 March 2016.

Boettle M., Rybski D., Kropp J.P. 2016. Quantifying the effect of sea level rise and flood defense – a point process perspective on coastal flood damage. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 16, 559-576.

Freedman A. 2013. 10 March 2016.

National Geographic. Sea Level Rise. 3 March 2016.