New Orleans experiences flash floods when thunderstorms coincide with high tides, and serious drainage problems exacerbate the damage caused by these events. Sea level rise will lower the threshold for floods to occur, and worsen the effects of extreme ones.

Earth.Org has mapped what severe flooding could look like by 2100 if no preventive measures are taken. 

New Orleans topography is quite unique, in that it is completely surrounded by water, sitting between the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, and wetlands. The city was originally built on natural levees and high ground along the Mississippi, but urban expansion in the 1960s led to floodwall and artificial levee construction, along with marsh and wetland filling. Swampy areas are important for natural drainage after heavy precipitation and impermeable ground like concrete stop water absorption by the ground.

Much of the city is now below sea level, and the lack of drainage makes New Orleans extremely flood-prone. This was sadly demonstrated when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, causing mayhem, death, and cost around USD $70 billion. 

As sea level rise continues to accelerate, New Orleans becomes increasingly vulnerable to costly and dangerous floods.  A recent paper published in Nature estimates that, under high emissions scenarios, global sea levels could rise by an average of 1 to 2 meters by 2100. This would make floods occur with high tides without the need for rain, thus making rain-induced floods exponentially worse. 

Louisiana has already dedicated USD $25 billion to protect its communities, with strategies including levees, restoring shorelines by pumping sediments, and relocating entire communities. Unfortunately, if humans continue down their current path, waters will rise above levels that any spending can mitigate in New Orleans. Earth.Org has mapped what the worst-case scenario would look like for this city by 2100. 

sea level rise by 2100 new orleans

Sea level rise projections by 2100 for two scenarios with the amount of rise in meters indicated (mild = 2m; extreme = 5m). Percentage and total 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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