A 2009 earthquake wreaked havoc in American Samoa, but damage extended beyond immediate impacts. Since the event, the island has begun to subside, magnifying the effects of sea level rise. 

Earth.Org takes a closer look. 

American Samoa is located in the south-central Pacific Ocean, halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. Before the magnitude 8.1 earthquake in 2009, the sea level around American Samoa climbed 2 to 3 millimeters per year, which is approximately the global average. However, since the incident, American Samoa’s submersion rate has increased to 5 times that of the global average.

Scientists explain that American Samoa’s subsidence is due to its location around the fault zone. The afore-mentioned earthquake triggered tectonic mechanics that are causing the crust to slowly sink. Interestingly, in Samoa, which is merely 164 kilometers away from American Samoa, tectonic shifts push the island both horizontally and vertically at equal rates, hence slowing down the rate of sea level rise.

Extreme weather events occur regularly in this part of the Pacific, and floods can be a dangerous nuisance. Sea level rise increases the likelihood and worsens the effect of floods, and coastal cities all over the world are in a race against time to adapt. American Samoa is particularly vulnerable, and officials only recently became aware that they have less time than most to do so. 

Earth.Org has mapped what extreme flooding would be like in American Samoa by 2100 to illustrate the need for action. 

sea level rise by 2100 american samoa

Sea level rise projections by 2100 for two scenarios with the amount of rise in meters indicated (mild = 2m; extreme = 4m). Population displacement indicated bottom right.


Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 2m at the end of this century. However, in order to determine local sea level rise (SLR), one has to take into account local coastal flood levels which could be 2.8m above Mean Higher-High Water (MHHW) at extreme forecasts. These local levels bring variability to the projected SLR from 1m to 6.5m (eg. Rio vs Kolkata).

The SLR scenarios used in this study are based on the forecasts from Climate Central – Coastal Risk Screening Tool  with the following parameters:

Sea level Projection Source:

From two highly cited journals by Kopp et al., estimating SLR mainly due to ocean thermal expansion and ice melt. The mid-range scenario projected 0.5-1.2m of SLR based on different representative concentration pathways (RCP) defined by the IPCC. While the pessimistic scenario added more mechanisms of ice-sheet melting, estimating SLR at 1m-2.5m in 2100, with a projection of 10m SLR at 2300.

Coastal Flooding

More frequent coastal flooding is a direct impact of sea-level rise. Based on the Global tides and surge reanalysis by Muis et al., (2016), it is estimated that the extreme coastal water level could be from 0.2 – 2.8m over the mean level. While in extreme cases like China and the Netherlands it could experience 5-10m of extreme sea levels. Here, the coastal local flood level is added on top of the projected SLR.

Pollution Scenario:

Allows choosing the RCP, the greenhouse gas concentration trajectory defined by the IPCC.  The mild level is based on RCP4.5, of 2°C temperature rise; while the Extreme level is based on RCP 8.5, of 4°C temperature rise.


Applies to the baseline SLR, defined in the “Sea level projection” section, upon which we add flooding. “Mild” refers to the mid-range scenario of 0.5-1.2m, and “extreme” to the pessimistic scenario of 1-2.5m. We used the high-end value of each scenario (mild = 1m; extreme = 2.5m).

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