The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
Many people know 2004 science fiction film The Day After Tomorrow as the movie in which the Statue of Liberty is buried up to her eyeballs in snow. The story follows several characters as they reckon with an extreme weather event that freezes much of the Northern Hemisphere. While the movie’s transformation of New York City into a giant snow globe helps viewers separate fiction from fact, storm surge and flooding events that precede the freeze seem eerily familiar.
That’s because New York City is one of myriad communities witnessing the acceleration of sea level rise, a climate change-related phenomenon whose impacts include both storm surge and flooding and whose burdens fall heavily upon women and girls. Recent decades have exhibited the most rapid rates of sea level rise in over two millennia, as 10 centimeters of rise have been recorded just within the last 20 years (compared to 15-25 centimeters total between 1901 and 2018).
While The Day After Tomorrow portrays an extreme freeze, the earth is experiencing quite the opposite. Most excess heat trapped near the earth’s surface is absorbed by the ocean, which serves as a buffer preventing more dramatic increases in temperatures on land. But when the ocean warms, it expands and causes sea levels to rise. Melting glaciers and ice sheets (i.e., Antarctica and Greenland) have also contributed to sea level rise at higher rates in recent years . While seasonal melting is expected, the regeneration of this ice is being outpaced by its disappearance.
As such, the cumulative amount of sea level rise in the years to come will depend on global temperatures, which, in turn, depend on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Projections of anticipated sea level rise vary based on the level of emissions reductions achieved, ranging from around 30 centimeters by year 2100 in a low-emissions scenario to a whopping 2 meters in the case of extremely high emissions. Women, who are more likely to live in poverty, will have access to fewer resources to adapt or recover from resulting disasters.
Just as the Northern and Southern Hemispheres experience the freeze differently in The Day After Tomorrow, locations will experience different amounts of local sea level rise based on water temperature, gravitational pull, and other geographic factors. The most acute effects will be felt by those living on islands or coastlines, where impacts include storm surges, flooding, coastal erosion, and increasing intensity of extreme weather events originating over the ocean. Trickle-down effects are equally severe, potentially resulting in displacement, crop loss, contaminated water, habitat degradation, and infrastructure damage, just to name a few.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by many of these impacts, as saline contamination of soil and drinking water hinders subsistence farming and other traditional responsibilities. Women and girls must find alternative sources of freshwater in unfamiliar communities, which increases their risk of encountering gender-based violence, removes them from school, and hampers their economic independence.
Many countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean are at imminent risk, while cities in South America, North Africa, and the east coast of the United States are not far behind. Women in South Asia have already reported health complications and job losses following increases in river salinity. In many communities, women and girls are not permitted to leave their homes unaccompanied or are not taught to swim, increasing their susceptibility to injury or death in the event of natural disasters exacerbated by sea level rise.
Communities across the globe are exploring different adaptation and mitigation options when it comes to managing sea level rise. Strategies range from building shoreline resilience (e.g., restoring dunes or growing salt-tolerant crops) to retreating away from the coast (like how communities relocated to avoid the freeze in The Day After Tomorrow). While women are less likely to be integrated in conversations about disaster risk reduction, efforts to promote their participation and leadership could lead to more effective outcomes.
The U.S. Government is committed to working with allies and partners to slow the rate of sea level rise, while simultaneously addressing challenges disproportionately felt by women, girls, and marginalized communities. The State Department is using the latest sea level rise projections and other climate data to inform U.S. action in multilateral forums, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its annual Conference of Parties (COP). Other federal efforts include deploying solutions for increased resilience, strengthening the use of climate science in decision-making, publishing sea level rise technical reports, and developing educational materials.
While The Day After Tomorrow should not be viewed as a severe storm survival guide, it can prompt useful conversations about climate change adaptation. What measures could your community take to build resilience to sea level rise?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a contracted Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI). Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.