How Will Rising Sea Levels Affect Chile?

As a coastal country situated so close to Antarctica, Chile will be directly affected by rising sea levels due to climate change. With current climate change research, scientists believe that sea levels could rise up to a meter by 2100 and up to eight by 2300. They believe the rise will be due in part to the melting polar ice caps, many of which are located in southern Chile and Chilean territories in the Arctic. 

Chile is feeling the major effects of climate change as the country suffers through droughts and some of the worst fires in its history. There is, however, another danger, one less obvious in everyday lives today: rising sea levels. 

According to researchers, Chile is one of the countries particularly at risk for rising sea levels, and, with a coastline that runs some 4,300 km (2,700 mi), this is no surprise. Though Chile has many processes in place to combat tsunamis due to its high frequency of earthquakes, such as temporary evacuations, it hasn’t prepared for sea level rise nor has the country done sufficient research in order to understand the details of this potential crisis. 

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Flooding Due to Rising Sea Levels

With the global sea level increase in the next 80 years, floods will become increasingly devastating to Chile, especially in some low-lying coastal areas, which could completely disappear. Despite the fact that Chile’s coasts are not as low-lying as those in countries such as Indonesia, Patricio Winkler, doctor of Oceanic Civil Engineering at the school of Ingeniería Civil Oceánica de la Universidad de Valparaíso, recently did a study that examined 35 coastal areas of Chile.

In his data, he found that 28 of them show signs of erosion likely due to changes in sea levels. This erosion is different from “accretion,” which scientists attribute to earthquakes. However, Winkler makes a point to emphasize the need for more research in order to definitively attribute this erosion to sea levels. 

In addition, flooding in other parts of the country could happen more quickly than initially anticipated, because Antarctica’s ice blocks continue to fracture and melt, pushing more water to mainland Chile. According to NASA, Antarctica has lost 100km3 of ice since 2002. Besides the damage floods can do to individuals lives (e.g., home displacements), the harm caused by these floods is also a huge financial burden on the government (sometimes costing billions of dollars in reconstruction and relief).

It therefore behooves the government to explore the viability of preemptive steps it might take to head off, or at least minimize, the damage posed by these threats.

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Specific Cities Impacted

Concepción, one of the most populous cities in the country, is especially at risk because of its rivers, which would fill quickly with ocean water before flooding nearby parts of the city. In addition, Concepción is subject to high winds and low atmospheric pressure, which create larger waves and, by extension, more flooding. With such a large population, flooding could directly not only halt production from industries located in the city, but displace many citizens living there. Valdivia is another city that has a location at the mouth of a river and could have similar problems, though less research has been done on this city. 

La Serena is also a city that is particularly at risk but rather than rivers, it is because of the urbanization in relation to the type of sediment close to its coasts. This means that this sediment could erode faster than, perhaps, sediment in different coastal areas. In addition, La Serena is one of the coastal cities that is more low-lying, which means it could be one of the first cities to show signs of flooding devastation

The increase in urbanization is also an important factor because many citizens of coastal cities in urban parts of Chile don’t fully understand the irregularities of tides or how to handle them. Kay Bergamini, an environmental academic from the Instituto de Estudios Urbanos de la Universidad Católica points out that places like Chiloé are going to need to have residents that are more aware of how to personally handle these changes. Bergamini stresses the importance of continued research, specifically in port cities, in order to avoid the danger of rising sea levels. 

Finally, as the arctic blocks continue to melt at an alarming rate, cities in the southern most point of Chile are at an increasing risk of damage.  Punta Arenas, for example, will be one of the most affected cities because of this. The city might flood throughout, all the way to landmarks such as their stadium

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Other Impacts

Rising sea levels have the obvious effect of flooding, but there is more devastation in store if the sea rises just one meter. Since Chile has some of the largest seismic activity in the world, researchers fear that this could contribute to the rapid rise in sea levels since earthquakes weaken the structure of the earth and soil. 

The Humboldt Current is another factor and is present throughout Chile’s coastline. This current not only gives Chile its cold water, but it also allows for increased oxygenation and nutrients, which gives the coast a variety of marine life.

According to Osvaldo Ulloa, the director of the Millenium Institute of Oceanography, the change is sea levels could directly impact the oxygen levels provided by the current, which could harm the wildlife that benefits from it. This, in turn, has far-reaching consequences, because many industries rely on the fish and crustaceans that live in these waters for sale and export; some local populations also subsist on this seafood.

The flooding could damage many more industries as well since ports could fall victim to access flooding.  Although much of Valparaiso is on a hillside, the ports are not. These ports, the main port of Chile, which offer many jobs and account for 30% of all the goods imported into the country, could disappear if sea levels rise suddenly or sustain irreversible damage.  

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Next Steps

Scientists like Ulloa and Winckler are attempting to bring attention to the consequences of global warming on sea levels in Chile. While the government continues to focus on drought and renewable energy, each an important topic in its own right, the seas continue to rise, and the impacts, though not immediate, could likewise be irreversible.

The danger is especially present for coastal cities as the country continues to grow and urbanize. In order to take actions to combat these results of climate change, government officials also need to understand the complex coast of Chile because of the variations in the structure of cities and coastal areas, which requires a great deal more research.

In the case of Antarctica, the Chilean government has proposed 107 projects to preserve the ice and prevent the potential negative effects of its rapid melting. Winckler offers the solution of creating artificial beaches in order to combat the access of water and dedicating time to building more coastal infrastructure. At this point, however, the government has made no headway with these proposals.

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