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Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise

Coastal areas constitute important habitats, and they contain a large and growing proportion of population and economic activity, including economic centres such as London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Lagos. Sea-level rise is a long-term threat to these areas. Global-mean sea levels rose 17 cm through the twentieth century due to global warming: they are likely to rise more rapidly due to the same cause through the twenty-first century when a rise of more than 1 m is possible. In some locations, local (or relative) sea-level rise may be exacerbated by subsidence, especially due to ground fluid withdrawal from, and drainage of, susceptible soils. Relative sea-level rise has a range of potential impacts, including higher extreme sea levels (and flooding), coastal erosion, salinization of surface and ground waters, and degradation of coastal habitats such as wetlands. In the worst case, large land areas could be lost and millions of people could be displaced by sea-level rise. Appropriate responses include mitigation of climate (a global response) and subsidence (a local response) and/or adaptation (also a local response). A combination of these strategies appears to be the most appropriate response to sea-level rise. Adaptation responses can be characterized as (1) protect, (2) accommodate, or (3) retreat. While these adaptation responses could reduce impacts significantly, they will need to be consistent with responses to all coastal hazards, as well as with wider societal and development objectives; hence, an integrated coastal management philosophy is required. In some developed countries, including England and the Netherlands, proactive adaptation plans are already being formulated. Coastal cities worldwide will be a major focus for adaptation efforts because of their concentrations of people and assets. Developing countries will pose adaptation challenges, especially in deltaic areas and small islands, which are the most vulnerable settings.


Robert Nicholls (University of Southampton)


Robert Nicholls’ research concerns long-term coastal engineering and management, especially the issues of coastal impacts and adaptation to climate change, with an emphasis on sea-level rise. This includes lead authorship of chapters in four reports of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC): Second Assessment Report (1996); the Regional Assessment (1998); the Special Report on Technology Transfer (2000); and the Third Assessment Report (2001). He was Convening Lead Author (with P.P. Wong (Singapore)) for the “Coastal Systems and Low-Lying Areas” chapter in the IPCC 4th assessment and is the Review Editor of the Coastal Chapter in the IPCC 5th Assessment.

He has contributed to many national studies such as the DEFRA-funded “Fast Track” assessments as the coastal expert, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, and led the coastal research theme in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which developed the “Coastal Simulator”. He continues to lead the Cities and Coasts theme of the Tyndall Centre ( He also contributed to the Foresight study of Flood and Coastal Defence and its update for the Pitt Review and participated in related missions to Russia and the USA.

He was one of the principal developers of the DIVA (Dynamic Interactive Vulnerability Assessment) which builds on his experience with the Fast Track Assessments. DIVA has been used in both research and in policy development. This includes input into the EU Green Paper on Adaptation, the UNFCCC 2007 paper on adaptation costs, the World Bank 2010 assessment of Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change, and the Asian Development Bank study of China, South Korea, Japan and Mongolia. He has lead two recent OECD papers on climate change, including a global assessment of flood exposure in large port cities. This work continues with funding both the national AVOID Programme and the OECD. He is also advising several national governments on adaptation, such as Singapore.

Currently he is Principal Investigator/Co-Investigator of six major projects. He leads the NERC-funded iCOAST Project (2012-2016) which concerns “Predicting Long-term Coastal Geomorphological Evolution” and is a partnership with the Environment Agency with application to flood and erosion risk management. He also leads the Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) study on “Assessing Health, Livelihoods, Ecosystem Services And Poverty Alleviation In Populous Deltas” (2012-2016). This is based in coastal Bangladesh, but is also developing transferable methods for other deltas. The other projects are:
  • EPSRC “Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium” (2011 to 2016)
  • EU 7th Framework IMPACT2C Project (2011 to 2014)
  • EU 7th Framework THESEUS Project (2010 to 2014)
  • EU 7th Framework CLIMSAVE Project (2010 to 2013)
He was awarded the Roger Revelle Medal by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in 2008. This recognises ‘outstanding contributions to the ocean sciences by inspired researchers who communicate their knowledge and global vision of the challenges facing our Planet in order to shape a better future for humankind’.



adaptation sea level rise

Event Details

Date: 18 April 2012
Venue: The Geological Society, London
Speaker: Robert Nicholls



Naomi Newbold
Tel: 020 7432 0981