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Oceans On the Rise

Almost 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal communities. This is a sobering statistic to think of as we brace for the Atlantic hurricane season (which begins June 1st). But it’s an equally jarring one in a warming world.    

That’s because, thanks to climate change, millions living in low-lying coastal areas are seeing their homes and livelihoods affected by rising sea levels and more intense storms. But not all of those affected are in remote places like the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Surprisingly, this issue is one that also hits close to home for Catholics because many of the U.S. cities at greatest risk are also cities with the nation’s largest Catholic populations. 

Miami, Florida – a city with over 30% of its residents identifying as Catholic – tops this list. It’s been nicknamed “ground zero” in the battle against rising seas. 

Sea level rise, or the increase in the water level line of the world’s oceans, triggers land loss and increases flood risk. Climate change encourages this to happen in two ways: first, as oceans warm, they expand; and second, as land-based polar ice (such as glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica) warm, they melt and add to the volume of water that fills ocean basins.

Since 2006, sea levels at Miami Beach have risen nearly 3.5 inches, compared to the 1.1 inch mean rise globally in the last decade. And under current  scenarios, scientists predict seas could rise an additional 6-12 inches across South Florida by the year 2030, and as much as 7 feet by the end of the century. (To help put these numbers into perspective, consider this: a 2-foot rise could be enough to submerge a roster of South Florida cities under water.) 

New Orleans, Louisiana, a city founded on Catholicism, is facing a similar dilemma. The city, which is already protected by levees rising to about 22 feet high, is also slated to see one of the highest levels of sea level rise in the world – up to 15 inches by 2040. 

In Hampton Roads, Virginia (a region surrounded by one of the world’s largest natural harbors), residents don’t have to wait until the next historical rain event or the year 2030 – for them, coastal flooding and erosion is a reality they’re navigating day-to-day. “Rising sea levels could force the relocation of military installations that drive the Hampton Roads economy, and coastal flooding and erosion also could cause insurance costs to rise for homeowners”, says Monsignor Walter Barrett, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hampton and St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Fort Monroe. In fact, the threat of rising seas is so urgent in the state, that the Virginia Catholic Conference (which represents the public policy interests of the state’s bishops) teamed up with local parishioners to advocate for the VA Coastal Protection and Resiliency Act – a legislation aimed at helping fund coastal resiliency and flooding mitigation projects in the vulnerable Tidewater region.    

Clearly, care for our oceans should be an essential focus of our overall care for creation, for the oceans are a unique part of creation that connect the human environment and the natural environment. They contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, feed a great part of our population, and as Pope Francis reminds us in his Laudato Si, “Our very bodies are made up of [Earth’s] elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” They’re also teeming with an immense variety of living creatures with whom our lives are intertwined and who give glory to God by their existence.   

 As we celebrate World Oceans Day this June, let us pause for a moment and reflect on the beauty of God’s oceans and marine life. And let us allow our praise of God’s goodness and grandeur through this beauty mobilize our actions in assisting our brothers and sisters in neighboring Catholic communities and around the world in keeping their oceans, lakes, and rivers healthy and safe.

This piece was written by Tiffany Means, a meteorologist and science writer who has published multiple online articles on weather and climate science.


This prayer for World Oceans Day comes to us from the website of one of our partners, Global Catholic Climate Movement. For more information on oceans, climate change, and those living in coastal areas, watch our webinar, Climate Change's Canaries: Oceans and Vulnerable Populations. 

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