Sea levels rising fastest in a “Northeast Hot Spot”

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey say that in the past 20 years, the sea level has risen more in an area they call the “Northeast hot spot” than anywhere else on the continent, a finding they say was unexpected.

“We were interested in whether sea level rise was accelerating within the United States,” said Asbury Sallenger, lead author of the report published in Nature Climate Change this weekend. “That’s become a bit of a controversial question both among scientists and in the public.”

Globally and in most of North America, sea levels are rising at a steady rate of 1.5-2 millimeters per year. But according to the new study, in a 1,000-km span between central North Carolina and the Boston area, they could be rising as much as half a centimeter per year.

“We found a surprising result, really,” Sallenger said. “That’s the only place that this is occurring.”

The study’s authors think the East Coast sea levels are more affected than other regions because currents that run from South to North along the Eastern seaboard are also slowing down due to global climate change patterns. A slower “circulation” in this part of the Atlantic Ocean would lead to sea levels rising at a faster rate than in other areas.

It’s likely that we’ve already experienced the effects of this disproportionate climb in sea levels in Connecticut, especially during Hurricane Irene last fall. Officials at the local and state levels have stepped up their efforts to plan for greater flooding impact from storms.

Based on a report from The Nature Conservancy earlier this year, nearly 45,000 acres of Connecticut would be flooded in a Category 3 storm. The area includes 10 airports, five train stations, 645 miles of road and 131 miles of train tracks. Sea level rise alone, it reports, by 2020, could permanently flood 13,00 acres, six airports, 94 miles of road and 20 miles of train tracks.

Sallenger said the study published in Nature Climate Change reflects growing interest among researchers in tracking climate change more locally and regionally, rather than globally.

Scientists at UCLA are looking at the effects of global warming on an even more micro-level – examining the differences in expected temperature changes in neighborhoods across the Los Angeles area.

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and the Connecticut Mirror. An audio version of this story will be available Tuesday morning.