"It may be gradual, but the impacts are real."
Carefully mapped satellite imagery shows that America's East Coast — particularly its major population centers — is sinking at an eerily rapid pace, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech and the US Geological Survey.
Per the satellite study, published last week in the journal PNAS Nexus, areas including New York City, Baltimore, and Norfolk are sinking at rates between 1 and 2 millimeters annually — a reality that could result in serious infrastructure damage and harm to person and property if it remains unmitigated.
"The problem is not just that the land is sinking," Leonard Ohenhen, a grad student working at Virginia Tech's Earth Observation and Innovation Lab and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "The problem is that the hotspots of sinking land intersect directly with population and infrastructure hubs."
"We measured subsidence rates of two millimeters per year affecting more than two million people and 800,000 properties on the East Coast," added study co-author and Virginia Tech geophysics professor Manoochehr Shirzaei, who urged that subsidence — the scientific term for the caving-in or sinking of land — is "not an intangible threat."
"It affects you and I and everyone," the professor continued, adding that "it may be gradual, but the impacts are real."
New York's dilemma also represents some of the damage that could take place as a result of any potential oceanic engulfment. As Shirzaei noted in his statement, the study found that "significant areas of critical infrastructure in New York" that exceed annual subsidence rates of two millimeters include "JFK and LaGuardia airports and its runways, along with the railway systems." And beyond the loss of major public centers like airports and railroads, a city sinking into the ocean also presents an increased risk of dangerous and possibly deadly flooding.
If you're feeling a bit hopeless, you'd be forgiven. That said, the researchers do write in the study that more devastating consequences of East Coast subsidence could be staved off by way of proactive — as opposed to reactive — climate mitigation policies. But of course, in a divided America, a truly forward-thinking climate response continues to be an increasingly difficult goal.
More on climate change: Scientists Simulated Runaway Greenhouse Effect and It's Horrifying
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