Effective sea-level rise in deltas: Causes of change and human dimension implications


An assessment is made of contemporary effective sea-level rise (ESLR) for a sample of 40 deltas distributed worldwide. For any delta, ESLR is a net rate, defined by the combination of eustatic sea-level rise, the natural gross rate of fluvial sediment deposition and subsidence, and accelerated subsidence due to groundwater and hydrocarbon extraction. ESLR is estimated under present conditions using a digital data set of delta boundaries and a simple model of delta dynamics. The deltas in this study represent all major climate zones, levels of population density, and degrees of economic development. Collectively, the sampled deltas serve as the endpoint for river basins draining 30% of the Earth's landmass, and 42% of global terrestrial runoff. Nearly 300 million people inhabit these deltas. For the contemporary baseline, ESLR estimates range from 0.5 to 12.5 mm yr− 1. Decreased accretion of fluvial sediment resulting from upstream siltation of artificial impoundments and consumptive losses of runoff from irrigation are the primary determinants of ESLR in nearly 70% of the deltas. Approximately 20% of the deltas show accelerated subsidence, while only 12% show eustatic sea-level rise as the predominant effect. Extrapolating contemporary rates of ESLR through 2050 reveals that 8.7 million people and 28,000 km2 of deltaic area in the sample set of deltas could suffer from enhanced inundation and increased coastal erosion. The population and area inundated rise significantly when considering increased flood risk due to storm surge. This study finds that direct anthropogenic effects determine ESLR in the majority of deltas studied, with a relatively less important role for eustatic sea-level rise. Serious challenges to human occupancy of deltaic regions worldwide are thus conveyed by factors which to date have been studied less comprehensively than the climate change–sea-level rise question.


Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping

Publication Date



50, Issues 1-2

Journal Title

Global and Planetary Change



Publisher Place

New York, NY, USA



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Document Type

Journal Article