Coastal flooding by tropical cyclones and sea-level rise

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The future impacts of climate change on landfalling tropical cyclones are unclear. Regardless of this uncertainty, flooding by tropical cyclones will increase as a result of accelerated sea-level rise. Under similar rates of rapid sea-level rise during the early Holocene epoch most low-lying sedimentary coastlines were generally much less resilient to storm impacts. Society must learn to live with a rapidly evolving shoreline that is increasingly prone to flooding from tropical cyclones. These impacts can be mitigated partly with adaptive strategies, which include careful stewardship of sediments and reductions in human-induced land subsidence.

At a glance


  1. Global tropical cyclone activity for the period 1981-2010.
    Figure 1: Global tropical cyclone activity for the period 1981–2010.

    a, Accumulated cyclone energy (ACE). In the Northern Hemisphere, ACE is highest in the western and eastern North Pacific, with lower values in the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In the Southern Hemisphere, ACE is highest in the South Indian Ocean. b, Historical tropical cyclone tracks. Tracks of intense tropical cyclones concentrate in the western and eastern North Pacific regions, with fewer occurring in the North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere. Colour scale refers to intensities of tropical cyclone tracks. c, Potential intensity for the western North Atlantic and eastern North Pacific87, western North and South Pacific and Indian Ocean88, and South Atlantic89. Colour scale is the same as in b and refers to potential intensity wind speed contours. In the North Atlantic and eastern North Pacific, tropical cyclones with maximum 1 minute sustained wind speeds in excess of 33 ms−1 are classified as hurricanes, whereas in the western North Pacific storms meeting this same criterion are called typhoons, and in the Southern Hemisphere they are called severe tropical cyclones. Hurricanes with wind speeds in excess of 50 ms−1 are defined as major hurricanes (Categories 3–5).

  2. Global sea-level trends.
    Figure 2: Global sea-level trends.

    Local sea-level trends based on individual tidal gauge records more than 50 years old24, 90. Green arrows indicate regions where rates of SLR have been near the long-term global average, whereas red and yellow indicate areas where SLR exceeds the global mean. For comparison, arrows on the bottom right show (from left to right) the global instrumental averages from 1900 to present, the projected average rate from present to 2100, and the projected rate at 2100 (ref. 23; see Fig. 4b for SLR time series derived from ref. 23). Dashed lines outline regions of tropical cyclone activity defined by ACE in Fig. 1a. Spatial coverage is limited by the availability of long-term tide gauge records. However, most of the key population centres affected by tropical cyclones are focused in locations of rising sea level. For instance, by 2020, of the world's top 30 megacities 13 are projected to be along coasts affected by tropical cyclones91 (see Fig. 3 for locations). With the exception of Chennai, India, all of these population centres have experienced a rise in relative sea level in recent decades, with rates at 10 of these 13 locations greater than the global mean41, 90, 92, 93. Figure adapted with permission from ref. 94.

  3. Coastlines with broad low-lying elevations and shallow abutting bathymetry.
    Figure 3: Coastlines with broad low-lying elevations and shallow abutting bathymetry.

    a, Regions where storm surge is enhanced by shallow depths offshore are shown in pale blue, and low-lying regions generally at a greater risk of coastal flooding are shown in red. Regions of tropical cyclone activity defined by ACE (Fig. 1a) are outlined by grey dashed lines in a. Broad regions of low-lying topography and shallow near-shore bathymetry are a fairly good proxy for dynamic and evolving low-gradient shorelines. b, The expansive low-lying regions in the Western North Pacific and North Indian Ocean are mainly along deltaic systems that are composed of unconsolidated subsiding sediments. c, Similarly, most of the low-lying coasts affected by tropical cyclones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western North Atlantic are composed of soft sediments often fronted by dynamic barrier beach systems. Finally, small-island nations affected by tropical cyclones, often identified in be as isolated light blue regions, are typically fronted by living reef and mangrove systems, which are particularly sensitive to changing environmental conditions. Topographic and bathymetric data are from ref. 95. Coastal cities indicated with circles are ranked among the top 30 of the world's largest urban centres by 2025 (ref. 91).

  4. Mean global sea level along with patterns and extent of preserved sedimentary records of tropical cyclone activity following the most recent glacial maximum.
    Figure 4: Mean global sea level along with patterns and extent of preserved sedimentary records of tropical cyclone activity following the most recent glacial maximum.

    a, Four separate estimates of global sea-level elevation since 10,000 years before present96, 97, 98, with b, associated SLR observed over the twentieth century23. The twenty-first century projections between intermediate high (IH) and intermediate low (IL) ranges presented in ref. 23 are shaded grey, with the mid-point (dashed line). c, Tropical cyclone activities (adapted from ref. 82). Each rectangular line represents a tropical cyclone reconstruction (see ref. 82 for references for each individual reconstruction) with location grouped by North West Atlantic, red; North West Pacific, blue; South West Pacific, green; and South Indian, orange. Black represents active tropical cyclone periods and light shading less active periods. Sedimentary reconstructions of tropical cyclones exist only for the past few millennia, partly because coastlines were generally more unstable before this period due to increased rates of SLR.


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  1. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA.

    • Jonathan D. Woodruff
  2. Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg 24061, Virginia, USA.

    • Jennifer L. Irish
  3. Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA.

    • Suzana J. Camargo

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