Fig. 1 From: New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding

New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding

Sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people, researchers from Climate Central, a research and advocacy group, report. That’s roughly triple the number of people estimated to be at risk using previous coastal elevation data.

The new estimate, published October 29 in Nature Communications, comes from efforts to refine NASA satellite elevation data, and it illustrates the implications of elevation data having been overestimated in some places by up to 5 to 10 meters. The results are presented in terms of how many people, by today’s population numbers, could be affected, but don’t predict how many people will actually be living in those coastal areas in 2100.

“The global threat from sea level rise and coastal flooding is far greater than what we thought it was,” says Benjamin Strauss, who heads Climate Central in Princeton, N.J.

While the research highlights an increased threat to people currently living in coastal areas, it does not estimate how much more land area will fall below flood projection lines, and whether that area includes a handful of coastal megacities or mostly large swaths of less populated land. So it’s unclear how many people in future cities might be at risk of inundation, which could limit the usefulness of the findings to city managers. The researchers say those details fell outside the scope of this study.

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Most estimates of global mean sea-level rise this century fall below 2 m. This quantity is comparable to the positive vertical bias of the principle digital elevation model (DEM) used to assess global and national population exposures to extreme coastal water levels, NASA’s SRTM.

CoastalDEM is a new DEM utilizing neural networks to reduce SRTM error. Here we show – employing CoastalDEM—that 190 M people (150–250 M, 90% CI) currently occupy global land below projected high tide lines for 2100 under low carbon emissions, up from 110 M today, for a median increase of 80 M. These figures triple SRTM-based values. Under high emissions, CoastalDEM indicates up to 630 M people live on land below projected annual flood levels for 2100, and up to 340 M for mid-century, versus roughly 250 M at present. We estimate one billion people now occupy land less than 10 m above current high tide lines, including 250 M below 1 m.


Driven by climate change, global mean sea level rose 11–16 cm in the twentieth century1,2. Even with sharp, immediate cuts to carbon emissions, it could rise another 0.5 m this century3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12. Under higher emissions scenarios, twenty-first century rise may approach or in the extremes exceed 2 m in the case of early-onset Antarctic ice sheet instability4,8. Translating sea-level projections into potential exposure of population is critical for coastal planning and for assessing the benefits of climate mitigation, as well as the costs of failure to act.

Land topography and elevation, as represented by DEMs, lie at the foundation of such translation. High-accuracy DEMs derived from airborne lidar are freely available for the coastal United States, much of coastal Australia, and parts of Europe, but are lacking or unavailable in most of the rest of the world. By contrast, SRTM is a near-global satellite-based DEM covering latitudes from 56 south to 60 north and thereby land home to 99.7% of world population (based on 2010 Landscan data13). It is the standard choice for extreme coastal water level (ECWL) exposure analysis covering areas where high-quality elevation data are unavailable or prohibitively expensive14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21.

SRTM models the elevation of upper surfaces and not bare earth terrain. It thus suffers from large error with a positive bias when used to represent terrain elevations. This is especially true in densely vegetated and in densely populated areas22,23,24,25. Mean error in SRTM’s 1–20 m elevation band is 3.7 m in the US and 2.5 m in Australia when using DEMs from airborne lidar as ground truth26. Spaceborne lidar from NASA’s ICESat satellite27, a sparser, noisier and less reliable source of ground truth than airborne lidar, indicates SRTM has a global mean bias of 1.9 m in the same band26. This degree of error leads to large underestimates of ECWL exposure28, and exceeds projected sea-level rise this century under almost any scenario3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12.

In this article, we present ECWL exposure assessments that address this problem by employing CoastalDEM, a new DEM developed using a neural network to perform nonlinear, nonparametric regression analysis of SRTM error. This model incorporates 23 variables, including population and vegetation indices, and was trained using lidar-derived elevation data in the US as ground truth. CoastalDEM covers the same near-global latitudes as SRTM while reducing vertical bias to decimeter scale (0.01 m and 0.11 m as measured versus airborne lidar in the coastal US and Australia; −0.29 m as tested versus spaceborne lidar globally). CoastalDEM also cuts RMSE roughly in half compared to SRTM26. In low-elevation US coastal areas (where SRTM elevation is less than or equal to 20 m) in which population density exceeds 20,000 per square kilometer, including areas in 14 coastal cities such as Miami, New York City, and Boston, CoastalDEM reduces linear vertical bias from 4.71 m to less than 0.06 m. An overview of the methods used to generate CoastalDEM can be found in the methods section.

Central estimates in the recent literature broadly agree that global mean sea level is likely to rise 20–30 cm by 20503,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. End-of-century projections diverge more, with typical central estimates ranging from 50–70 cm under representative concentration pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 70–100 cm under RCP 8.53,9,10,12, though more recent projections incorporating Antarctic ice sheet dynamics indicate that sea levels may rise 70–100 cm under RCP 4.5 and 100–180 cm under RCP 8.5, and could even exceed 2 m or more in far-tail scenarios4,7,8,11. Via a structured elicitation of opinion, experts now estimate there is a 5 percent chance 21st century sea-level rise will exceed 2 m29. Essentially all estimates are below the vertical bias of SRTM. Of these, we consider two representative sea-level projections for this assessment, labeled here as K143 and K174. K14 is a probabilistic projection that is closely aligned with IPCC findings10,30, while K17 is not probabilistic and emphasizes the possibility of more rapid sea-level rise because of unstable ice-sheet dynamics31. Further details of these models are discussed in the methods section.

Both sets of projections are conditional on global carbon emissions; RCPs 2.6 (low emissions), 4.5 (moderate emissions), and 8.5 (high emissions) are considered for this analysis32. These models use 2000 as the baseline year (zero sea-level rise), which we treat as present-day with respect to sea level for relevant vulnerability estimates. The results we present here are based on median sea-level projections, along with 90% credible intervals when derived from K14, and 90% intervals from simulation frequency distributions when derived from K17 (we abbreviate both interval types as CI).

Because higher and more frequent coastal flooding is a direct impact of sea-level rise33,34, we also assess potential exposure to ECWLs resulting from annual floods added on top of rising seas. We use local one-year return level heights (RL1) from the Global Tides and Surge Reanalysis35. These return levels vary spatially from a 5th percentile of 0.2 m to a 95th percentile of 2.8 m above local mean higher-high water (MHHW)—roughly speaking, the high tide line—across the near-global set of coastal cells assessed in this study (median value, 0.7 m).

We find that assessments using CoastalDEM instead of SRTM multiply median global ECWL exposure by roughly three or more for all scenarios and models considered. The majority of people living on implicated land are in developing countries across Asia, and chronic coastal flooding or permanent inundation threatens areas occupied by more than 10% of the current populations of nations including Bangladesh, Vietnam, and many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) by 2100.



Given each sea level scenario analyzed (Supplementary Table 1), and alternately using SRTM and CoastalDEM, we estimate the number of people on land that may be exposed to coastal inundation—either by permanently falling below MHHW, or temporarily falling below the local annual flood height (Table 1, Supplementary Data 1). Coastal defenses are not considered, but hydrologic connectivity to the ocean is otherwise enforced using connected components analysis. Figure 1 presents permanent inundation surfaces at select locations for median K17/RCP 8.5/2100. Future population growth and migration are also not considered; rather, we use 2010 (essentially current) population density data from Landscan13 to indicate threats relative to present development patterns.

Population exposure to projected sea level or coastal flooding is most commonly expressed as the total estimated exposure below a particular water level (total exposure)14,16,17,19,21,36, but is increasingly also presented as the difference in exposure above a contemporary baseline (marginal exposure)16,21,37. Each approach has complementary strengths and limitations, discussed later. Here, we include marginal exposure values for key findings, while focusing more on total exposure. The latter is simpler and supports a wider and more easily interpretable set of comparisons between CoastalDEM-derived and SRTM-derived results.

For the present day, CoastalDEM estimates a global total of 110 M people on land below the current high tide line and 250 M on land below annual flood levels, in contrast with corresponding SRTM-based estimates of 28 M and 65 M. These values form the basis of the difference between total and marginal exposure estimates.

For one moderate future scenario, sea levels projected by 2050 are high enough to threaten land currently home to a total of 150 (140–170) million people to a future permanently below the high tide line, or a marginal increase of 40 (30–60) million. Total and marginal exposure each rise by another 50 (20–90) million people by end of century. A total of 360 (310–420) million people are on land threatened by annual flood events in 2100, or an extra 110 (60–170) million beyond the contemporary baseline. This case reflects greenhouse gas emissions cuts roughly consistent with warming of 2 °C (emissions scenario RCP 4.5) and assumes a mostly stable Antarctic (sea-level model K14).

In the case of Antarctic instability, a total of 300 (270–340) million people today live on land indicated as vulnerable to an annual flood event by mid-century, rising to as many as 480 (380–630) million by 2100. These values represent marginal increases of 50 (20–90) and 230 (130–380) million from the present, respectively. All 90% CIs given originate from uncertainty in sea-level projections.

More broadly, the effect on estimated ECWL exposure from changing the elevation data used exceeds the combined effects of emissions level, Antarctic behavior, and incorporation of annual flooding, as assessed using SRTM. For example, based on CoastalDEM, the total median current population on land falling below the projected mean higher high water line in 2100 under low emissions and a fairly stable Antarctica (RCP 2.6 and K14) is 190 million. This figure doubles the median SRTM-based estimate of 95 million under high emissions and Antarctic instability (RCP 8.5 and K17), and even exceeds SRTM-based figures under the same scenario after the addition of areas below the annual flood level (170 million).

More straightforwardly, Supplementary Data 2 and 3 tabulate people currently occupying land from 0–10 m MHHW at 1 m intervals, according to CoastalDEM and SRTM, respectively. In previous work using SRTM18, about 640 M people have been estimated to live in the low elevation coastal zone (LECZ), defined as areas below 10 m. Defining the LECZ to reference MHHW instead of EGM96, we find SRTM predicts 780 M people below this threshold, and with CoastalDEM, the estimate rises to just over one billion people. Remarkably, this latter prediction includes 770 M below 5 m, versus 230 M from 5–10 m, illustrating a strong concentration in the lowest areas. The densest 1-m vertical band among the first ten is from 1-to-2 m, with 170 M inhabitants (or 1.7 M per vertical centimeter), pointing to a risky global pattern of development in light of sea-level rise.


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Kulp, S.A., Strauss, B.H. New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding. Nat Commun 10, 4844 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12808-z

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  • Received 05 March 2019
  • Accepted. 01 October 2019
  • Published 29 October 2019

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