Climate Change: Designing for Sea Level Rise


Ecologists, the World Bank and insurance companies share one thing in common: within a turbulence of climate change controversy and denial by certain politicians and corporate mavens, they get it.

They get climate change. Insurance companies in North America have dropped thousands of East Coast customers and raised rates on the rest—in part resulting from climate predictions. Ecologists have been modeling exponential climate-induced ecosystem behaviour for decades. The World Bank recently indicated that they would no longer fund fossil fuel energy (after 2019), strongly supporting renewable energy such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Pudong district Shanghai

Pudong district of Shanghai

But building and landscape architects, planners and engineers “don’t seem to have connected the dots,” write landscape architects Kristina Hill and Jonathan Barnett in Harvard Design Magazine. It’s one thing to ignorantly deny climate change and its effects with the claim that the Chinese manufactured the term to drive up competition; it’s quite another to acknowledge climate change but ignore its effects by continuing to do things the same

the palm jumeirah in Dubai with skyline

Artificial islands in Dubai

way. We still see active condo development over the barrier beaches of Florida’s eastern shore; the Pudong district rises from the marshes in Shanghai; and glass towers colonize newly formed islands off the coasts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.


“No matter what happens in the world of politics, sea levels are going to rise faster in our lifetimes than they have since before the first cities were built,” add Hill and Barnett.


To return to our seemingly “head in the sand” scenario, Hill and Barnett provide an explanation for why many colleagues in their profession and related professions are doing little about preparing for climate change. “We are used to thinking of the environment as something that changes very slowly, if at all, and are confident that modern engineering can solve just about any problem.” This mindset isn’t prepared for the coming scenarios: 40 million people uprooted as Shanghai floods and Dubai’s artificial islands disappear; all of Florida south of Orlando swept out to sea.


Miami shoreline protection

Miami shoreline protection

Hill and Barnett suggest that there are three ways of dealing with the effect of rising seas on coastal development: 1) move development away from the shore, restoring the shoreline to a state that will accept the fluctuations of rising tides and storm surges (best alternative for individual homes in vulnerable locations, but a last resort for whole cities): 2) raise development above flood levels in their current place. Raising the elevation of a whole urban district can work, say the authors, although it is expensive and requires coordination of public and private investment; 3) protect coastal development with a combination of wetlands restoration, flood walls, and pumps. A version of this strategy (minus the significant wetland restoration) failed in New Orleans. While some engineers are thinking in terms of enormous barriers, some architects are thinking of altering buildings instead.

Jakarta-waters edge protection

Sea level rise protection in Jakarta

Regarding the third option, Hill and Barnett describe a horizontal rather than vertical plain (e.g., walls, mechanical barrier arms, levees, houses on stilts) to address sea-level rise and associated storm surges. They suggest a living coastal infrastructure that would support marine ecosystems and also absorb some wave energy and flood water and allow that new coastal infrastructure to migrate inland as sea levels rise. They cite the statistic that for every five miles of (functional) coastal wetland a foot of storm surge is absorbed and reduced. However, most of the heavily populated coastal areas don’t have the capacity to restore and construct such wetlands. Moreover, much needed light for marsh vegetation growth is usually blocked by turbid water from storm-water runoff and outfalls.

noahs-ark-Aleksandar Joksimovic-Jelena Nikolic

Noah’s Arc design by Aleksandar Joksimovic and Jelena Nikolic

What Hill and Barnett propose is as brilliant as it is apparently ridiculous: build artificial floating marshes and reefs. This brings to mind some of French architect Vincent Callebaut’s imaginative designs for the future. Hydrogenase is a floating algae farm with vehicles that recycle CO2 for biohydrogen. Lilipad is described as a “floating ecopolis for climate refugees.”


Hydrogenase by Vincent Callebaut

In an article called “10 Architectural Schemes That Could Help Us Adapt to Rising Seas” the Smithsonian discusses a variety of possibilities from a floating house to a mobile city shaped like a giant lilypad (yes, that one is Callebaut’s).

Each year, the Fondation Jacques Rougerie (named after the French architect who made a specialty of marine habitats) awards a Prize for the best project in “Architecture & Sea level rise”. In 2012, it went to Koen Olthuis, Mahtab Akhavan, Laura Weiss and Alexandre Voegelé for the project Thalassophilantropy: “floating urban components to address rising water challenges threatening communities in need”, mainly people living in slums by the shore. As the Foundation says on its website, “this project aims to rethink the poor urban neighbourhoods of seaside cities.”

Re-Generator Project-designing for sea level rise china

Re-Generator Project by Gabriel Munoz Moreno to regenerate the wetlands of Hangshou

Koen Olthuis and his team offer their solution for rising sea levels: Embrace the water by incorporating it into our cities; creating resilient buildings and infrastructure that can handle extreme flooding, heavy rains, and higher water. Countries like the Maldives and Kiribati must build oceanside or move to escape rising sea levels; New York must learn to battle storm surges, and Jakarta deals with massive flooding. “Embracing water may be our only option for survival,” says Olthuis.

NYC dryline project

NYC Dryline project

The award in 2016 went to “New Edge, extending shore boundaries” by Prethvi Raj and team from India. Special mention went to: “H2O Ferme Flottante” by Zhicheng Weng and team from China/France; “Coup de Coeur (Buoyant Light)” by Claire Lubell and team, Canada and “Land-Water Co-Habitation” by Tang Jieliang, Hong Kong.


floodgates to rising sea level storm surges

The Dutch have a long history of dealing with the sea. Half of the country currently exists below sea level. Some wisdom can be gained from their experiences, successes and failures.


End Notes from Hill & Barnett:

  1. According to Dr. Vivien Gornitz, a top NASA scientist who has been studying climate change and its implications for sea level since the late 1980s, a global average temperature increase of 1.9 to 4.6 degrees. C could cause major changes in these massive ice reservoirs. That increase could be reached by 2100 in the IPCC’s SRES A1B scenario. In this scenario, global economic and population growth continues but new and more efficient technologies for energy use are assumed to be in use. It also assumes balanced growth in fossil and non-fossil fuel use, which is not yet the case. It’s not a worst-case greenhouse gas emissions scenario, but it is sufficient to produce the kind of warming that historically caused large parts of the world’s massive ice sheets to melt and raised sea levels by sixteen to twenty-three feet. Gornitz calls the IPCC’s latest estimate that sea level could rise by half a foot to two feet by 2100 “probably a very conservative estimate” in part because “current computer models do not yet include many of these dynamic ice processes.” (Email to Kristina Hill, June 19, 2007.)
  2. K. Breslau, “The Insurance Climate Change,” Newsweek, January 9, 2007,
  3. The historical record of hurricanes leaves the New York area with a 150-year “return interval” for a Category 3 storm like the Long Island Express of 1938. For more details about that storm, see: As climate change and sea-level rise occur, this rate of occurrence may not reflect the region’s new realities, which could be worse. New York’s vulnerability is assessed by insurers as a function of the magnitude and likelihood of storms, but also in terms of the amount of insured property along the coast. New York has more than $1 trillion in insured coastal property, putting it a close second to Florida in terms of vulnerability and far outpacing other U.S. states.
  4. G. A. Vecchi and B. J. Soden, “Increased tropical Atlantic wind shear in model projections of global warming,” Geophysical Research Letters34, L08702, doi:10.1029/2006GL028905, April 2007.
  5. See the final report at
  6. A draft of the North American impacts chapter is available at
  7. Images and descriptions of this artificial coastline can be found at
  8. R. Kerr, “Pushing the Scary Side of Global Warming,” Science, June 8, 2007, 1412–1415.
  9. This is why it is impossible to simply draw a line at some elevation above sea level to identify urban areas that could be impacted by sea level rise. Impact maps must consider local subsidence by adding it to the predicted global average for sea-level rise, as well as the erosive impacts of waves (including typical as well as storm-driven waves). The so-called “Brunn’s Rule” in coastal geomorphology is often interpreted to mean that every centimeter of sea-level rise corresponds to fifty to eighty centimeters of horizontal beach erosion. Applying that rule means that a three-foot rise in sea level would correspond to 150 to 240 feet of shoreward erosion of a sandy beach.
  10. Illustration for a climate change simulation, Boston Globewebsite, April 2007
  11. Susmita Dasgupta, Benoit Laplante, Craig Meisner, David Wheeler, and Jianping Yan, “The Impact of Sea-Level Rise on Developing Countries: A Comparative Analysis,” World Bank Policy Research Paper 4136, February 2007,
  12. Pew Oceans Commission, “America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change,” Pew Trusts, 2003,
  13. More information about trends in estuary environments can be found at
  14. D. Beach, “Coastal Sprawl: The Effects of Urban Design on Aquatic Ecosystems in the United States,” Pew Oceans Commission, Arlington, Virginia, 2002,
  15. About a third of New York City’s water customers depend on the Long Island aquifer for water, which is vulnerable to intrusion by salt waters as sea levels rise. New York’s emergency water source has been the Hudson River, which was accessed at the Chelsea pumping station in the late 1980s during a major drought. This emergency intake is vulnerable to the movement of salt water up the Hudson as sea levels rise. For more detailed information about water supply in these areas and its vulnerability to climate change, see D. Major and R. Goldberg, “Water Supply,” Metropolitan East Coast Water Sector Report(New York: Columbia University Center for Climate System Research, 2001),; Knowles and D. Cayan, “Potential Effects of Global Warming on the Sacramento/San Joaquin Watershed and the San Francisco Estuary,” Geophysical Research Letters29: 18, 2002.
  16. Breslau.
  17. Concise and accessible information on this subject can be found in E. Mills, “Insurance in a Climate of Change,” Science, August 12, 2005, 1040 – 1044.
  18. E. Mills, R. J. Roth, E. Lecomte, “Availability and Affordability of Insurance under Climate Change: A Growing Challenge for the U.S.” prepared for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, 2005,
  19. L. J. Valverde, “Hurricane Risk in NY City & Long Island: Towards a More Realistic Appraisal of Extreme Weather Risk in the Northeast United States,” Insurance Information Institute, New York, May 5, 2006,
  20. M. J. Bowman and D. Hill, “Bracing for Super-Floyd: How Storm Surge Barriers Could Protect the New York Region,” briefing for the New York Academy of Sciences,


nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. 

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