Sea Level Rise Modeling with GIS: A Small University’s Contribution To Understanding A Global Dilemma

kostelnickArticles, Climate, Education, Original, Technology, Water

John Kostelnick, Rex Rowley, David McDermott, Carol Bowen


Image of map showing projected sea level rise (5 m) for Northwestern Europe.

Figure 1. Projected sea level rise (5 m) for Northwestern Europe. Population at risk in the inundation area iscalculated at over 21.7 million people(Rowley et al. 2007).

The International Polar Year (IPY) is highlighting climate change as a major societal issue that is receiving heightened attention from both the scientific community as well as the general public.

Earth process modeling and data visualization tools are critical to understanding the processes associated with climate change. One such set of tools is Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS can serve a critical role in monitoring the geographic dimensions of climate change as well as assessing the impacts of climate change on the natural environment. In addition, GIS may be utilized to analyze climate modeling results in conjunction with population datasets in order to assess the impacts of climate change on human society around the globe.

One anticipated impact of climate change is sea level rise resulting from melting of the world’s major ice sheets and temperate glaciers. Various estimates have projected the severity and pace of sea level rise around the globe.

For example, the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (IPCC 2007) provided an upper-level estimate of 26-59 cm of sea level rise over the next century. The U.S. Geological Survey (2000) has projected future sea level rise of approximately 80 meters if the entirety of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were to melt. Sea level rise has the potential to displace large populations that currently live in proximity to the coast. According to one estimate, 10% of the world’s population lives in coastal areas 10 meters or less above sea level (McGranahan, Balk, and Anderson 2007).

The objective of this article is to provide a case study account of how one small university, Haskell Indian Nations University, is contributing to the study of sea level rise, and global climate change in general, through the use of GIS.

In recent decades, GIS has emerged as a powerful new platform that may integrate digital maps, remote sensing, and a multitude of other types of geographic datasets that may be utilized for analyzing, assessing, modeling, and visualizing Earth processes. The “GIS Revolution” has had far-reaching impacts on both science and society (Dobson 2004). A relevant application to global climate change is the use of GIS to model the potential consequences of sea level rise through “what if?” types of scenarios (e.g., what areas around the globe would be inundated with a 5-meter rise in sea level and how many people would be displaced?).

Maps and visualizations depicting projected sea level rise on the landscape may serve as effective tools that may be utilized by scientists and educators for communicating the potential consequences of sea level rise to policy makers and the general public.

image of map showing projected sea level rise (5 m) for Southeast Asia and Northern Australia.

Figure 2. Projected sea level rise (5 m) for SoutheastAsia and Northern Australia. Population at risk in theinundation area is calculated at over 183.4 million people(Rowley et al. 2007).

Haskell Indian Nations University

Located in Lawrence, Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University is a four-year university offering bachelors degrees in American Indian Studies, business administration, elementary education, and environmental science as well as associates degrees in fifteen subject areas.

Haskell was founded in 1884 as an agricultural training school for Native American youth, and currently is one of two federally funded Tribal colleges or universities (TCUs) operated through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Each year Haskell serves approximately 900-1000 undergraduate students, from approximately 35 states, who represent over 130 federally recognized Tribes in the United States.

In recent years, Haskell has steadily developed a program on campus to support GIS courses, research projects, and GIS workshops that serve Tribal communities. Currently, Haskell offers a three-course sequence in GIS, in addition to related introductory courses in geography. Students work with faculty on a range of applied research projects that provide “hands on” project experience to supplement classroom learning. Such practical experience has proved particularly advantageous for students who enter the workforce in GIS-related careers, including those who return to work for their Tribes. Grants, partnerships, and collaborations with other institutions have proved invaluable to the development of GIS at Haskell. Collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey as well as support from the NSF-funded Polar Radars for Ice Sheet Measurement (PRISM) project provided initial support for the development of GIS at Haskell.

Currently, the university serves as a partner institution with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS). An NSF Tribal College University Program (TCUP) grant and a NASA Curriculum Improvement Partnership Award (CIPA) II grant have expanded and enriched the GIS curriculum further in recent years. Additional details about the GIS program at Haskell may be found at

Image of map showing projected sea level rise (5 m) for Southeast U.S.

Figure 3. Projected sea level rise (5 m) for Southeast U.S.Population at risk in the inundation area is calculated atover 17 million people (Rowley et al. 2007).

Modeling Sea Level Rise with GIS

Over the last few years, Haskell students have worked as part of a collaborative research team, composed of graduate students and faculty from both Haskell and the University of Kansas, that has utilized GIS to estimate the effects on population of a hypothetical rise in global sea level. The objective of the project was to use GIS to define inundation areas resulting from sea level rise, and then to compare these inundated areas to best-available global population datasets in order to estimate current population at risk at both global and regional scales.

A sea level rise model was developed in a GIS framework based on two parameters: elevation in relation to mean sea level and connectivity to the existing ocean. The model inputs a global digital elevation model (DEM), a regular grid of elevation values, and then identifies all grid cells that would be inundated based on a user-defined increment (e.g., 5 meters) (Figures 1-4). Basic statistics were computed for model results to determine total land area inundated at intervals of 1-6 meters. Model results were overlayed with population datasets to estimate numbers of people currently living in the inundation zones (Note: population estimates are provided for areas displayed in Figures 1-4 in the figure captions. Additional population estimates as well as inundated land area estimates are reported in Rowley et al. (2007)). Other project results include static maps, map animations, and inundation layers viewable in Google Earth, which may be accessed from the CReSIS webpage. Ongoing research has focused on localized sea level rise studies which may account for other environmental variables not feasible at the global scale, such as tides, in addition to incorporating finer elevation datasets developed through Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) remote sensing.

The participation of Haskell students proved vital to the completion of the sea level rise project, with two students involved in all phases of the project from start to finish. Under the direction of graduate students and faculty, students worked on a variety of tasks, including data processing and formatting, running sea level rise models, and designing maps and visualizations. Haskell students have been particularly drawn to the animations of sea level rise as an analytical and expository technique, building on a rich tradition of story-telling as an essential part of scholarship. The project illustrated the challenge of developing visually appealing tools, such as high-resolution animations, in ways that call attention to the risk of coastal flooding yet still reflect the considerable uncertainty over anticipated amounts of sea level rise. Students were challenged to consider small changes in cartographic technique, such as including representations of local tidal variation or avoiding implications of associating a temporal scale to sea level rise, in order to yield animations and visualizations that engage the viewer’s attention without irresponsibly exaggerating the risks of global sea level rise.

In addition to enhancing their GIS skills and gaining undergraduate research experience, Haskell students also experienced the satisfaction of presenting their work in professional settings as well as seeing their project results published. Perhaps equally important, students experienced firsthand the logistical challenges involved with managing and executing a large project with multiple team members. Finally, the sea level rise project provided an opportunity for students to consider the broader impact of climate change on indigenous peoples around the world by working with groups such as the American Indian/Alaska Natives Climate Change Working Group led by Haskell professor Dr. Daniel Wildcat.

Image of map showing Amazonian Sea Level Rise

Figure 4. Projected sea level rise (5 m) for the AmazonDelta region. Population at risk in the inundation areais calculated at over 21.5 million people(Rowley et al. 2007).

The immense challenges associated with global climate change invite the participation and contributions of institutions and organizations of all sizes, including small universities such as Haskell Indian Nations University. The sea level rise project serves as an example of how one small institution can contribute on a larger scale. As instructors, we see tremendous benefits in such a project-based, applied approach to undergraduate education. With a topic as important to society as climate change, we have found that it is relatively easy to get students excited about the possibility of making a lasting contribution.


  1. Dobson, J. E. 2004. The GIS revolution in science and society. In Geography and Technology, edited by S.D. Brunn, S.L. Cutter, and J.W. Harrington Jr., 573-587. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Climate Change 2007, the Physical Science Basis; Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
  3. McGranahan, G., D. Balk, and B. Anderson. 2007. The rising tide: Assessing the risks of climate change and human settlements in low elevation coastal zones. Environment and Urbanization 19(1): 17-37.
  4. Rowley, R. J., J. C. Kostelnick, D. Braaten, X. Li, and J. Meisel. 2007. Risk of rising sea level to population and land area. 2007. EOS Transactions 88(9) (27 February 2007): 105, 107.
  5. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 2000. Sea Level and Climate, Fact Sheet No. 2. Washington DC: USGS. Available online.

Author Biographies:
John Kostelnick is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography-Geology at Illinois State University. He previously served as an instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University where he assisted in the development of the GIS program.
Rex Rowley is a geography and GIS instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University and a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Kansas. He previously served as a graduate research assistant with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), serving as a liaison between Haskell and CReSIS.
David McDermott is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Kansas. He teaches at the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University and is a graduate research assistant with CReSIS.
Carol Bowen has taught in Haskell Indian Nation University’s Department of Mathematics for 23 years. Her interests range from applied mathematics to applied technologies.