Infographic series: Rising seas lay siege to China's booming coastal cities


Infographic series: Rising seas lay siege to China's booming coastal cities


A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics estimates that global sea levels could rise far more quickly than expected: 10 feet within the next 50 years. The paper, now undergoing public review, is far less optimistic than the projections by the United Nation's panel on climate change, and is not without its skeptics. But those familiar with China's geography will recall that the vast majority of the mainland's populace and economic activity are concentrated along the eastern coastline. 

To get a rough idea of how said coastline might look in 2065 if humanity fails to make major emissions cuts, China Economic Review has charted below how a sea-level rise of 3 meters (9.8 feet) would impact the China coast's major cities and ports using Google Maps and an online tool for charting hypothetical changes in sea level. The results lend new urgency to the need for China (among others) to wean itself off of carbon-intensive coalDrag your cursor over the maps below to see them.

Note: All population figures given are from the 2010 national census published by China's National Bureau of Statistics. For more details on how sea level rise was calculated using data from NASA, as well as potential minor inaccuracies in the resulting coastline predictions, see the program author's explanation.

Tianjin, Yingkou, Dongying, Dalian

If Bohai Bay's silhouette resembles a noodle-nosed hammerhead shark, Tianjin is dead-center in its sneeze trajectory; the municipality's population (15.2 million) is clustered in its urban center near the coast. In the shark's southern eye socket lies Dongying (2 million), a prefecture-level city home to the Shengli Oilfield, while the port of Yingkou (2.4 million) lies in the northeastern corner of its upper eye stalk. Dalian (6.6 million), provincial capital of Liaoning province, occupies the isthmus stretching from the northeastern peninsula that outlines the crook of its neck.

Yancheng, Taizhou, Lianyungang

 Perhaps the largest swathe of coast to go under would be just north of Shanghai. The sprawling coastal prefecture of Yancheng's population (7.2 million) is dispersed across a flood-plain that would be largely submerged by a 3-meter rise. Taizhou (4.6 million), just north of the northernmost bend in the Yangtze River, would become a coastal city. Lianyungang (4.8 million), on the northernmost section of the coast, seems to be spared somewhat, but that may in part be a function of its buildings' elevation cancelling the mapping software's further expansion of ocean waters.

Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing

While Shanghai (24.2 million) may see its city proper safe, the surrounding region looks likely to take heavy losses, particularly along the banks of the Yangtze. Here the mapping software may be holding back thanks to the generally higher elevation of the buildings in the area's massive metropolitan centers, but it could also be exaggerating the water levels surrounding the massive Lake Tai to the west. Lake-adjacent Suzhou (10.5 million) - the "Venice of China" - may still see flooding, though Nanjing (8.1 million), on the Yangtze's southern shore in the map's far northwest corner, remains relatively dry.

Hangzhou, Ningbo

 Hangzhou (8.8 million), historic provincial capital of Zhejiang province, sees little flooding. But the ports of Ningbo (7.6 million) appear to take on a good deal of water, and the buildings in the city's center may be masking greater flooding similar to that seen surrounding the rest of the city proper.

Hong Kong, Shenzhen

 Hong Kong (7.2 million) fares relatively well overall, though a large chunk of the northwestern New Territories goes under--as might the city's international airport, out in the territory's western reaches. But the lower-lying stretches of Shenzhen (10.6 million), just north along the coast to the east and west, may prove much more vulnerable to flooding.

Guangzhou, Foshan, Dongguan

Perhaps the hardest hit are the cities of the Pearl River Delta: Greater Guangzhou (25 million) and Foshan (7.1 million) are largely submerged. Dongguan (8.2 million) in the east less so, but the tremendous clustering of urban space and infrastructure that has dominated the region for decades is clearly at substantial risk from even a relatively minor rise in sea level. 

China's coastline: 2065 (+3 meters)

In short, a three-meter rise in sea level could prove the undoing of multiple key coastal cities in China if emissions continue apace, especially if nothing is done in advance to stem seawater's advance wherever possible. Where it is not, millions of people will need to be relocated. Still, the above is far from the worst-case scenario: A full meltdown of the planet's ice caps.

China's coastline: Worst-case scenario (+60 meters)

 The above map represents a 60-meter rise in sea level. Every one of the cities previously mentioned would be completely submerged, as would Beijing and a host of others located still farther inland. China's future emissions, along with those of the United States, will play a central role in determining whether the country's coastline will require such a drastic redrafting. 

Author: Hudson Lockett (@KangHexin)