Profiling risk and sustainability in coastal deltas of the world

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Science  07 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6248, pp. 638-643
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3574

Deltas are growing centers of risk

Population growth, urbanization, and rising sea levels are placing populations living in delta regions under increased risk. The future resiliency and potential for adaptation by these populations depend on a number of socioeconomic and geophysical factors. Tessler et al. examined 48 deltas from around the globe to assess changes in regional vulnerability (see the Perspective by Temmerman). Some deltas in countries with a high gross domestic product will be initially more resilient to these changes, because they can perform expensive maintenance on infrastructure. However, short-term policies will become unsustainable if unaccompanied by long-term investments in all delta regions.

Science, this issue p. 638; see also p. 588


Deltas are highly sensitive to increasing risks arising from local human activities, land subsidence, regional water management, global sea-level rise, and climate extremes. We quantified changing flood risk due to extreme events using an integrated set of global environmental, geophysical, and social indicators. Although risks are distributed across all levels of economic development, wealthy countries effectively limit their present-day threat by gross domestic product–enabled infrastructure and coastal defense investments. In an energy-constrained future, such protections will probably prove to be unsustainable, raising relative risks by four to eight times in the Mississippi and Rhine deltas and by one-and-a-half to four times in the Chao Phraya and Yangtze deltas. The current emphasis on short-term solutions for the world’s deltas will greatly constrain options for designing sustainable solutions in the long term.

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