Strong evidence on climate change underscores the need for actions to reduce the impacts of sea-level rise. Global mean sea level may rise 0.18–0.48 m by mid-century1,2 and 0.5–1.4 m by the end of the century2. Besides marine inundation, it is largely unrecognized that low-lying coastal areas may also be vulnerable to groundwater inundation, which is localized coastal-plain flooding due to a rise of the groundwater table with sea level. Measurements of the coastal groundwater elevation and tidal influence in urban Honolulu, Hawaii, allow estimates of the mean water table, which was used to assess vulnerability to groundwater inundation from sea-level rise. We find that 0.6 m of potential sea-level rise causes substantial flooding, and 1 m sea-level rise inundates 10% of a 1-km wide heavily urbanized coastal zone. The flooded area including groundwater inundation is more than twice the area of marine inundation alone. This has consequences for decision-makers, resource managers and urban planners, and may be applicable to many low-lying coastal areas, especially where groundwater withdrawal is not substantial.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $4.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., van den Broeke, M. R., Monaghan, A. & Lenaerts, J. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, LO5503 (2011).
National Research Council Sea Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington: Past, Present, and Future (Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Ocean Studies Board, 2012).
Nicholls, R. J. Planning for the impacts of sea level rise. Oceanography 24, 144–157 (2011).
Glover, R. E. The pattern of freshwater flow in a coastal aquifer. J. Geophys. Res. 64, 457–459 (1959).
Rotzoll, K. & El-Kadi, A. I. Estimating hydraulic properties of coastal aquifers using wave setup. J. Hydrol. 353, 201–213 (2008).
Bjerklie, D. M., Mullaney, J. R., Stone, J. R., Skinner, B. J. & Ramlow, M. A. Preliminary Investigation of the Effects of Sea-level Rise on Groundwater Levels in New Haven, Connecticut. USGS OFR 2012–1025 (USGS, 2012).
Nicholls, R. J. Coastal megacities and climate change. Geo J. 37, 369–379 (1995).
Oki, D. S. Numerical Simulation of the Effects of Low-permeability Valley-fill Barriers and the Redistribution of Ground-water Withdrawals in the Pearl Harbor Area, Oahu, Hawaii. USGS SIR 2005–5253 (USGS, 2005).
Rotzoll, K., Oki, D. S. & El-Kadi, A. I. Changes of freshwater-lens thickness in basaltic islands aquifers overlain by thick coastal sediments. Hydrogeol. J. 18, 1425–1436 (2010).
Stearns, H. T. & Vaksvik, K. N. Geology and ground-water resources of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Hawaii Div. Hydrogr. Bull. 1 (1935).
Oki, D. S., Souza, W. R., Bolke, E. L. & Bauer, G. R. Numerical analysis of the hydrogeologic controls in a layered coastal aquifer system, Oahu, Hawaii, USA. Hydrogeol. J. 6, 243–263 (1998).
Rotzoll, K. Numerical Simulation of Flow in Deep Open Boreholes in a Coastal Freshwater Lens, Pearl Harbor Aquifer, O’ahu, Hawai’i. USGS SIR 2012–5009 (USGS, 2012).
Rahmstorf, S., Perrette, M. & Vermeer, M. Testing the robustness of semi-empirical sea level projections. Clim. Dynam. 39, 861–875 (2012).
Ferguson, G. & Gleeson, T. Vulnerability of coastal aquifers to groundwater use and climate change. Nature Clim. Change 2, 342–345 (2012).
CH2M HILL Tidal Study Data Report, Site SS11 South/AMC Ramp Area, Hickam Air Force Base, Oahu, Hawaii. Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence—Pacific Division Contract F41624-03-D-8595, Task Order 332 (United States Air Force, 2006).
CH2M HILL Tidal Study Data Report, Chlorinated VOCs plume area at site LF05, Hickam Air Force Base, Oahu, Hawaii. Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence—Pacific Division Contract F41624-03-D-8595, Task Order 8 (United States Air Force, 2006).
Rotzoll, K., El-Kadi, A. I. & Gingerich, S. B. Analysis of an unconfined aquifer subject to asynchronous dual-tide propagation. Ground Water 46, 239–250 (2008).
Merritt, M. L. Estimating Hydraulic Properties of the Floridan Aquifer System by Analysis of Earth-tide, Ocean-tide, and Barometric Effects, Collier and Hendry Counties, Florida. USGS WRI Report 2003–4267 (USGS, 2004).
Jacob, C. E. in Engineering Hydraulics (ed. Rouse, H.) 321–386 (John Wiley, 1950).
CH2M HILL Tidal Study Data Report, Iwilei Unit, Oahu Hawaii Iwilei District Participating Parties, LLC (CH2M HILL, 2004).
Camp Dresser and McKee Inc. Groundwater modeling study: Review of existing data, Ewa marina project. Report to Haseko (Ewa), Inc, Honolulu, HI (1993).
Werner, A. D. & Simmons, C. T. Impact of sea-level rise on sea water intrusion in coastal aquifers. Ground Water 47, 197–204 (2009).
Cooper, H. M., Chen, Q., Fletcher, C. H. & Barbee, M. Assessing vulnerability due to sea-level rise in Maui, Hawaii using LiDAR remote sensing and GIS. Climatic Change http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0510-9 (2012).
We appreciate discussions with Delwyn Oki (USGS). This study was funded by grants from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration-Coastal Storms Program.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Rotzoll, K., Fletcher, C. Assessment of groundwater inundation as a consequence of sea-level rise. Nature Clim Change 3, 477–481 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1725
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2021)
Holocene palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic reconstruction of a native ecosystem on the coastal plain of southern Brazil through multi-proxy analysis
Journal of South American Earth Sciences (2021)
Assessing the spatial–temporal response of groundwater‐fed anchialine ecosystems to sea‐level rise for coastal zone management
Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems (2021)
Limnology and Oceanography Letters (2021)
Environmental Research Letters (2020)