The World’s Cities Are Sinking

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

How much does a city weigh? You can’t put San Francisco on a scale, but new research from the US Geological Service estimates that the number is 1.6 trillion kilograms, about the same as 250,000,000 elephants. 

This isn’t just a clever math problem, though: all that weight is causing San Francisco and other coastal cities like it to slowly sink. The sinking, called “urban subsidence,” is caused by a range of factors, including a concentration of weight from buildings, people, and cars on the earth and groundwater pumped to support the city. The research estimates that San Francisco has sunk 80 mm over time as its population and size have grown. 

Why this Matters: By 2050, 70% of the world population is expected to live in an urban center. With many of those cities on the coast and sea level rise happening even faster than anticipated, there isn’t any extra land to spare. With rapid new building construction, smart planning and water management are necessary to keep sinking to a minimum and keep residents safe. A better understanding of urban subsidence could improve our understanding of flood plains and future areas at risk of inundation. 

As global populations move disproportionately toward the coasts, this additional subsidence in combination with expected sea level rise may exacerbate risk associated with inundation,” wrote Tom Parsons, the USGS geophysicist who did the study. 

Sinking cities worldwide: Nearly 10% of the global population lives at 10 meters above sea level or lower, putting cities worldwide at risk of coinciding rising seas and sinking ground.

  • In Jakarta, building weight coupled with lots of groundwater being pumped to the surface has sunk the city by 15 cm
  • In Shanghai, groundwater has been better managed, but lots of underwater construction, from aquifers to building foundations, could lead to anywhere from 3 cm to 2 meters of sinking. The city is expected to see sea levels rise by 43 centimeters.
  • In Bangkok, extracting groundwater was the primary culprit until a building boom in the ‘90s added to the weight of the city, which is now sinking by 2 centimetres annually. 
  • In Mexico City, aquifers readily tapped for drinking water are causing buildings around the city to noticeably sink and tilt. 

Tides already cause flooding: For some coastal U.S. cities, flooding is a present problem, not just a future risk. Miami and Boston both have recently had water inundate the city because of extreme high tides, called king tides. The annual high tides, which begin in the fall, are part of the lunar cycle and Gulf Stream current. But because climate change has pushed sea levels higher, these tides now flood streets and turn yards into swamps

 

 

Up Next

Miami Condo Collapse Raises Concerns of Flooding, Sea-Level Rise

Miami Condo Collapse Raises Concerns of Flooding, Sea-Level Rise

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer A condo collapse in Miami is prompting new conversations about the threats rising sea levels and flooding present to the nation’s infrastructure. Experts say that it’s too early to determine whether or not climate change contributed to the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers. But they also warn that as sea levels rise […]

Continue Reading 570 words
Tabasco Hot Sauce

Build Up Wetlands, Save The Hot Sauce

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Louisiana loses almost a football field of land each day, caused by a combination of climate change-fueled sea level rise, reduced sediment flow from the Mississippi River, and the land gradually sinking. One area that’s not slipping underwater: Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco hot sauce that’s still the […]

Continue Reading 397 words
Florida Governor Backs Highway Extension Through Everglades Region

Florida Governor Backs Highway Extension Through Everglades Region

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and part of the state Cabinet have approved a highway extension spanning a portion of the Everglades. The move rejects a 2020 recommended order from Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk, claiming that the project was incompatible with continued efforts to establish protections in the region. Legal challenges are […]

Continue Reading 558 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.