According to the findings published in the scientific journal Nature on Tuesday, roughly 300 million people are at risk of losing their homes by 2050 due to rising sea levels, largely in some of the most densely populated regions of the developing world.
This grim forecast by Climate Central, a New Jersey-based nonprofit of scientists and journalists, bases its information off new artificial intelligence and satellite data that it says provide a more accurate reading of global land elevation.
“Sea-level projections have not changed,” study co-author Ben Strauss, chief scientist and CEO of Climate Central, told AFP. “But when we use our new elevation data, we find far more people living in vulnerable areas than we previously understood.”
The forecast is based on elevation rather than flood models. It also doesn’t take into account coastal defenses, like seawalls and levees, the study notes. An interactive map showing land that’s projected to be below flood level in 2050 can be seen here.
A previous method of measuring land elevation used data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission project, or SRTM, but it estimated land elevation to be significantly higher because it included the tops of protruding features like buildings and trees, according to the study.
“SRTM data generally overestimate elevation, particularly in densely forested and built-up areas,” according to a release by Climate Central.
“Globally, the average overestimate appears to be roughly six feet. These values match or exceed most of the highest sea level rise projections for the entire century,” the organization said.
A prior estimate by SRTM put 80 million people in low-lying areas at risk of flooding.
Climate Central’s floodwater estimates for the United States, Australia and parts of Europe are similar to what was previously forecast because the areas had access to more costly scientific tools that gave better readings, the study notes.
Places like Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey and New York are expected to face devastating flood levels, though this has been long known and, in some extreme cases, already seen. In parts of the world that can’t afford such precise scientific measurements, global flood forecasts were less accurate.
Climate Central said it compared its findings to more expensive surveying data collected in the U.S. and Australia and found its forecasts to be accurate.
Bernadette Woods Placky, chief meteorologist with Climate Central, emphasized that the measurements in the study will only become reality if we fail to make environmental changes ― like reducing greenhouse gases.
“I kind of compare it to a diet,” she told CBS This Morning. “Even if you choose to eat healthy, it’s going to take a while to see those impacts on your body.”
At the United Nations Climate Event Summit in September, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley urged world leaders to take more aggressive action against climate change in order to prevent what she expects will be a “mass migration by climate refugees that will destabilize the countries of the world that are not on the frontline of this climate crisis.”
According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures are forecast to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from their preindustrial baseline sometime between 2030 and 2052.
“If hundreds or even tens of millions of people are flooded in Asia or Africa, it will create social and economic disruptions on a huge scale.”
Should this happen as expected, the World Health Organization expects low-lying coastal areas like Barbados to suffer extreme drought and related health issues that will be catastrophic to their populations.
“The real solution is for us to not keep asking people to make commitments that are small ... but the global community must accept that it is within our power to halt and reverse climate change,” Mottley said.
Climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele of the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium also warned about this possibility in response to Climate Central’s report.
“If hundreds or even tens of millions of people are flooded in Asia or Africa, it will create social and economic disruptions on a huge scale,” he told The Associated Press.