\View of the British Parliament under water from the World Under Water visualization tool.
Sea level rise is one of the most insidious of global warming's threats. Every inch of sea level rise increases the risk of coastal flooding during a storm or astronomically high tide in a coastal city, be it Chicago or Dhaka, Bangladesh. Driving home the point of escalating coastal flooding risks is a challenge that climate activists and scientists have been trying to overcome through high-tech mapping technologies, such as this zip-code specific system from the nonprofit research and journalism group Climate Central.
A new visualization tool called "World Under Water" shows sea level rise in your hometown (or anywhere else in the world). Although it has absolutely zero scientific accuracy — and its aim is more consistent with a climate change marketing gimmick than scientific tool — it does pack a powerful psychological punch.
For example, it allows you to see Las Vegas underwater. At last check, creeping desert sands and drought posed more of a threat to Vegas than the ocean.
The visualizations are the work of Carbon Story, a crowdfunding platform for climate change projects, working with the worldwide marketing firm BBDO and its affiliate, Proximity Singapore. It uses Google StreetView to picture what communities might look like after several feet of sea level rise.
"The idea isn’t just about creating a shocking effect, but rather to give people an opportunity to become part of the solution to climate change by calculating and offsetting their carbon footprint using CarbonStory’s website," said Olof Lundström, cofounder of CarbonStory, in a press release. The release cited a worst-case scenario prediction that long-term sea level rise over the course of many centuries could approach 82 feet, but it is unclear if the visualizations are based on that figure.
The most recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that global sea levels would rise by between 10.2 to 32 inches by the end of the century, as seas respond to melting land-based glaciers and ice sheets. Global averaged sea level rise was about 0.13 inches per year between 1993 and 2010, the IPCC found.
Philip Orton, a sea level rise researcher with the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, told Mashable that the tool is useful for visualizing what it would be like to have sea level rise cover an area you are familiar with.
He said it is an "information-less thing that just demonstrates what it looks like to have water on your block (be it Denver or Charleston). It has very little actual information content, or at least in my quick look it did."
In an email, Orton said there's actually a danger to this type of climate change visualization.
"I personally fear this kind of science-less advocacy has a danger; scaring people into wanting walls and surge barriers where they are not needed (e.g. Times Square; elevation ... verrry roughly 50 feet). And I think it is shallow to the point where people will see through it and it will not convert any skeptical smart people or political independents who are not currently worried about sea level rise."
However, there is room for these types of climate science marketing campaigns that seek to raise awareness and spur action, as Carbon Story hopes this will do. At some point though, someone or some group will figure out how to combine a scientifically rigorous map-based portrayal of sea level rise, such as the maps produced by Climate Central and similar data from the NOAA, with the visualization techniques of this project.
When that happens, look out, because it could wind up scoring a big climate science communications victory.