Sea Levels on the Rise since US Civil War

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Source: Lewis Wickes Hine, “Child Coal Miners – Drivers and Mules, Gary, W. Va., Mine.,” Library of Congress, Sep. 1908

When we think about the US Civil War, we’re more likely to think of debates like whether statues should be removed rather than climate change and alternative energies

However, according to new research published in Nature, modern global sea level rise patterns emerged along with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The sea level rise coincides with the increase of coal use during and after the war. Industrialization was taking hold of the country, as evidenced by the proliferation of steamboats and railroads. The technology ultimately helped lead to Union victory and arguably resulted in rising sea levels due to warming oceans and glacier melt. [1] [2]  

Jennifer Walker, Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers University, explained the importance of knowing this date: “Sea level rise is a really important indicator of broader climate change. If we can estimate when sea-level rise really emerged from background variability, we can pinpoint this onset of a significant period of climate change.” [2]

The patterns begun at the end of the Civil War have immediate implications now, as outlined by a Feb. 28, 2022 United Nations report. Compiled by nearly 300 scientists, the report warns that the planet has already been transformed by climate change and people are not only suffering, but also dying, because of the impacts of climate change including heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and disease outbreaks. [3] [4]

The report argues that to prevent global warming above 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, a climate tipping point, the world needs to dramatically cut greenhouse gases. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres stated, “Coal and other fossil fuels are choking humanity. Those in the private sector still financing coal must be held to account. Oil and gas giants – and their underwriters – are also on notice.” [3] [4]

The Biden Administration has bet on several alternative energies to reduce greenhouse gases, including wind. On Feb. 25, 2022, the administration leased more than 488,000 acres in the Atlantic Ocean between Cape May, NJ, and Montauk Point, NY for $4.37 billion over six leases. The impending turbines are expected to generate enough electricity to power almost two million homes. [5]

Discussion Questions

1. What are the best steps to slow or halt climate change? What can big companies do? What can you do? Explain your answers.

2. Which alternative energy do you think is the best option? Which is the worst option? Explain your answer(s).

3. How should we examine history to explain our present and future? Explain your answer(s).


1. Jennifer Walker, et al., “Timing of Emergence of Modern Rates of Sea-Level Rise by 1863,”, Feb. 18, 2022

2. Eric Schank, “Sea Levels Have Been Rising since the American Civil War. The Reason? Coal,”, Feb. 24, 2022

3. Rebecca Hersher, “Billions of People Are in Danger from Climate Change, U.N. Report Warns,”, Feb. 28, 2022

4. UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Working Group II Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” (accessed Feb. 28, 2022)

5. Lisa Friedman, “Sale of Leases for Wind Farms off New York Raises More Than $4 Billion,”, Feb. 25, 2022