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Photo: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

A "wobble" in the moon's orbit will combine with rising sea levels due to the Earth's warming to bring "a decade of dramatic increases" in high-tide coastal floods across the U.S. in the 2030s, NASA warns in a new study.

Why it matters: Low-lying areas near sea level already increasingly at risk from flooding will see their situation "only get worse," per a statement from NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

"The combination of the Moon's gravitational pull, rising sea levels, and climate change will continue to exacerbate coastal flooding on our coastlines and across the world."
— Nelson

Of note: Phil Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii and the lead author of the study, published this month in Nature Climate Change, said high-tide floods involve less water than hurricane storm surges.

  • But "if it floods 10 or 15 times a month, a business can't keep operating with its parking lot under water," Thompson said.
  • "People lose their jobs because they can’t get to work," he added "Seeping cesspools become a public health issue."

The big picture: Scientists have known about wobbles in the orbit of the moon, which takes 18.6 years to complete, since 1728.

  • While such events are not dangerous on their own, what's new is how one of the wobble's effects on the moon's gravitational pull — the main cause of Earth’s tides — will combine with rising sea levels resulting from the planet's warming, according to NASA.

What they did: For the study, researchers found the tipping points in flood numbers by analyzing 89 tide gauge locations in every coastal U.S. state and territory but Alaska.

  • "They created a new statistical framework that mapped NOAA's widely used sea level rise scenarios and flooding thresholds, the number of times those thresholds have been exceeded annually, astronomical cycles, and statistical representations of other processes, such as El Niño events, that are known to affect tides," per a NASA statement.
  • The researchers projected results through 2080.

State of play: We're now in the tide-amplifying part of this cycle. Along most U.S. coastlines, sea levels haven't risen too much, but high tides regularly top flooding thresholds.

The bottom line: By the next tide-amplifying cycle in the mid-2030s, the wobble in the moon's orbit will combine with rising sea levels.

  • "The higher seas, amplified by the lunar cycle, will cause a leap in flood numbers on almost all U.S. mainland coastlines, Hawaii, and Guam," NASA warns.
  • Far northern coastlines, like Alaska's, will be spared for another decade or longer because these land areas are rising due to long-term geological processes.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Jul 13, 2021 - Science

Jupiter moon Europa's chances of harboring life

A crater on Europa. Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Finding indicators of life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa will likely be more complicated than just taking snapshots of the world's surface, a new study suggests.

Why it matters: Europa is thought to be one of the best places to search for life in the solar system, with its subsurface ocean that could be habitable, but scientists are learning more about just how difficult it might be to actually find those signs of life.

Jul 12, 2021 - World

Biden admin rejects Beijing's claims to territory in South China Sea

Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a June joint press conference in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Clemens Bilan - Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration on Sunday reaffirmed a Trump-era policy rejecting the Chinese government's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Why it matters: Secretary of State Antony Blinken's firm statement comes ahead of this week's fifth anniversary of an international tribunal's ruling backing the Philippines' government against the Chinese Communist Party's maritime claims in the region.

1 hour ago - World

Biden: U.S. combat mission in Iraq will end this year

Biden returning to the White House on July 25. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The United States' combat mission against the Islamic State in Iraq will be completed "by the end of the year," President Biden said Monday prior to a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Why it matters: Biden is close to shifting the U.S. military mission in Iraq to a fully advisory role more than 18 years after combat troops were sent to the country under the former President George W. Bush.

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