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Just when Charleston was beginning to dry off, a new study finds that much of the city could be lost to sea-level rise unless carbon emissions are dramatically cut.

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the long-term effects of carbon emissions as they contribute to rising seas and what that means for coastal cities and towns. According to researchers, unabated carbon emissions up to the year 2100 would commit the planet to an eventual sea-level rise of 15-32 feet, affecting the homes of more than 20 million people in the U.S. Left unchecked, sea-level rise would one day claim most of West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant, and the Charleston peninsula as far north as Remount Road in North Charleston.

For 25 percent of Charleston’s populated land mass, the city has already passed the point of no return. Historical emissions have exceeded the critical level, and a quarter of residents’ homes will eventually fall below the future high-tide line as the sea level rises by more than five feet. Although the outlook seems grim, researchers say that immediate cuts in carbon emissions could help preserve or at the very least lengthen the lifespan of much of the city.

“If we continue on the path that we’re on now, our research indicates that the entire city could be underwater, locked-in to becoming underwater in the long run,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Benjamin Strauss. “I want to be very clear that I’m not talking about something that’s going to happen in 50 or even 100 years, but instead I’m talking about our carbon emissions over the next 50 to 100 years could mean that eventually Charleston would be well below sea level. Charleston is a historic city. There are important things in Charleston that are hundreds of years old. If we want to preserve those things for hundreds of more years, our research indicates the only way to do that is through extreme carbon cuts.”

If carbon emissions continue to climb throughout the 21st century, Charleston will be locked in to an eventual sea-level rise of almost eight feet, leading to the loss of half the city. An immediate reduction in emissions could preserve the remainder of Charleston.

“In Charleston, land beneath half the population could avoid submergence with extreme carbon cuts. That’s a really big difference, more than 50,000 people,” says Strauss. “But even in the best-case carbon emissions scenario, Charleston faces a grave threat. Local seal level is going to continue to rise for a long time and it’s going to pose great challenges.”

While the study’s projections focus on the long-term effects of rising oceans, now is the time for cities facing eventual sea-level rise to prepare for the inevitable. Unfortunately, the City of Charleston and Charleston County have done little to address this growing threat in their plans for the future. For Strauss, the solution is evident: cut carbon emissions immediately or risk the loss of Charleston for future generations.

“Some of the coverage of this study says that this city is going to be underwater in 2100,” says Strauss. “I want to be very clear, that’s not what the paper says. But it does say that we’re on a pathway where we’ve already committed to serious problems for cities like Charleston and we’re locking into those future problems worse and worse the more we emit.”

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