Abstract

A frequently predicted consequence of global climate change is an increased effect of coastal hazards on the world’s human population. The impact of coastal hazards depends on the proximity of human population to the coastal zone. Recently compiled population estimates are combined with a new continental digital elevation model in an attempt to quantify the global distribution of human population and occupied land area with respect to elevation and coastal proximity. The limited spatial resolution of the census data allows one to quantify some of the uncertainty in the spatial distribution of population. This provides a lower bound on the uncertainty in the resulting distributions but does not account for uncertainty in the census data or elevation data. Long-term records of relative sea level rise, tidal heights, and storm surge heights can be combined with global sea level rise estimates for a variety of climate change scenarios to estimate the approximate magnitude of vertical changes in local sea level. It is verified that large numbers of people live at low elevations near coasts but the uncertainties are too large to provide meaningful estimates of the number of people who reside in so-called “coastal zones” worldwide. The principal conclusion is that both the spatial distribution and the resolution of global data must be significantly improved before realistic quantitative assessments of the global impact of coastal hazards can be made.

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