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Researchers find rising sea levels disproportionately impact marginalized communities

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The groups more susceptible to environmental pollutants include people under the age of 18, the elderly and single-parent households.


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MAY 11, 2023

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UCLA and Climate Central, in collaboration with the Toxic Tides Project, published a study that discovered rising sea levels along California’s coast are placing marginalized communities at risk of flooding by contaminated water.

Rachel Morello-Frosch, senior author of the study and campus public health professor noted that larger renter populations, who are predominantly made up of people of color and experience higher levels of poverty, are more likely to be susceptible to environmental pollutants that come with rising sea levels due to geographic proximity to hazardous sites.

When flooding occurs, these areas are the first to be impacted, according to the study.

The groups more susceptible to environmental pollutants include people under the age of 18, the elderly and single-parent households. According to Morello-Frosch, low-income communities and other impacted groups are already dealing with “disproportionate exposure” to environmental toxins, adding that increased pollutants from sea levels rising will only worsen their situation.

“Compared to their neighbors, environmental justice communities can also face more challenges to evacuate during a flood, and often experience social stressors that can make them more susceptible to the health impacts of pollutant exposures,” Morello-Frosch said in an email.

The Toxic Tides project, which worked on the study, is dedicated to researching threats rising sea levels pose specifically to environmental health and social equity. Doctoral candidates in campus’s Energy and Resources Group, or ERG, Nicholas Depsky and Seigi Karasaki work on the project and helped with the study.

Karaski said he has been with the project as a researcher since 2020, working on both data analysis and visualization for the study and community engagement and collaboration.

Morello-Frosch noted that environmental justice organizations in California such as Asian Pacific Environmental Network, PSR-LA and CAUSE have continuously worked on issues of climate justice and done community engagement in climate resilience.

“We realized the need to fill a crucial data gap related to sea-level rise threats to hazardous facilities in low lying areas in the state, and to understand characteristics of the communities that live near these threatened sites,” Morello-Frosch said in the email.

The project found that there are potentially 423 hazardous sites that will be impacted immensely by the rise of sea levels given current greenhouse gas emissions if global warming is not controlled.

Policies to address climate change also need to work on closing the inequality gap between communities that are more susceptible to the effects of climate change and those who are not, Morello-Frosch noted.

“The good news is that, unlike wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme climate change events, sea level rise is like a slow-moving storm that we can anticipate and prepare for,” Morello-Frosch said in the email. “As California invests in community resilience to climate change, it is essential that considerations of environmental justice are at the (forefront).”

Contact Lucía Umeki-Martínez at 


MAY 11, 2023