OSLO (Reuters) - One in 10 people in the world, mostly in Asia, live in coastal areas at risk from rising seas and more powerful storms that may be caused by global warming, an international study showed on Wednesday.
The researchers urged governments to make billion-dollar policy shifts to encourage more settlements inland rather than in coastal regions from China to Florida that may suffer ever more storm surges and erosion.
A zone less than 10 meters (33 ft) above sea level “contains some 2 percent of the world’s land and 10 percent of its population,” according to the study to be published in the April edition of the journal Environment and Urbanization.
“Settlements in coastal lowlands are especially vulnerable to risks resulting from climate change, yet these lowlands are densely settled and growing rapidly,” the researchers in the United States and Britain said in the article.
Based on new computer population models and NASA satellite data, it estimated that 634 million people lived in the coastal zone in 2000, including 360 million in towns and cities.
More than 75 percent were in Asia. Globalization is promoting a shift toward coasts in countries including China and India by fostering a world trade largely dependent on shipping.
U.N. climate experts projected last month that sea levels could gain by 18 to 59 cms (7.1 to 23.2 inches) by 2100, and keep rising for centuries. They also forecast shifts including more powerful storms, droughts and heatwaves because of emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly from burning fossil fuels.
Wednesday’s report said even people living up to 10 meters above sea level could be vulnerable to cyclones, subsidence, erosion of river deltas or intrusion of salty sea water onto cropland.
“If you are in that zone you need to take the issues of sea level rise seriously,” said Gordon McGranahan, lead author at the London-based International Institute for the Environment and Development.
Ranked by population, China is most at risk with 143 million people living by the coast, followed by India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt and the United States.
By another measure, small island states will be hardest hit. More than 90 percent of the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Cayman Islands and the Turk and Caicos Islands are less than 10 meters above sea level.
“Relatively small shifts in settlement location, out of a coastal plain onto more elevated ground, can make a major difference,” according to the authors, also from the City University of New York and U.S. Columbia University.
Many countries cannot afford Dutch-style dykes to keep out rising seas but the researchers said governments could do a lot with better long-term planning and incentives for settling on higher ground.