John Englander
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

John Englander is an oceanographer and expert on sea level rise who takes pride in his ability to explain the watery issues plaguing our planet without jargon or bias. His weekly Sea Level Rise Now newsletter on his website ( is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to educate themselves on the societal and financial impacts ahead. When it comes to designing for a rising sea, he recognizes that it can pose a real challenge for architects, but that they inevitably must be the leaders.

One element of sea level rise that affects architects locally is land subsiding—going down—or uplifting—going up. And it’s a very big variation from place to place. In the last century, sea level has risen about 9 inches as a global average. But in New Orleans, it looks like 46 inches; in Virginia Beach, it looks like 30 inches; in New York, 14, and in Los Angeles, 4. The difference between those numbers, over the same period of time, is because the land has moved up or down to a certain degree. So if the global sea level rises 8 to 10 inches, but land is also rising or sinking for various reasons that can have a huge effect on the amount of rise that projects need to anticipate. Sea level rise adds to other flooding risks but it is different in that it is relatively slow, global in scope, and will not recede for centuries.

Architects, like most people, want to believe that we can fix the problem of sea level rise. They’re deeply into designing energy-efficient buildings to slow global warming—and that’s great. We need that. You just shouldn’t think that it will stop the seas from rising. I try to leave every audience I speak to with two simple messages: We should try to slow the warming as much as possible and we must start planning for sea level rise, to the degree that it’s unstoppable. We need to do both things at once.

The biggest issue we’re facing is that Greenland and Antarctica hold 98 percent of the ice in the world. While there are glaciers all over the world—Alaska, the Alps, Peru—the vast majority are in those two places. They hold enough ice to raise sea level hundreds of feet. But how fast will they melt, and how much rise will there be? That partly depends on how warm we let the planet get—if we burn all the coal or if we switch to renewable energy. The latest estimates are that this century we’ll get between 2 and 8 feet. That’s a huge range, and therein lies the problem in terms of design.

The rate of rise won’t be a straight line; it’ll be an exponential growth curve, so the recent past is misleading for the future. For the next 30 years, we may see a foot to 18 inches. Even though most buildings may be designed or mortgaged for 30 years, we know that more and more buildings survive 100 years. This is where architects need to talk to clients— whether it be a city, a commercial firm, a hotel, or just a homeowner—to help them think through different time frames. They need to start considering what things are going to be like in five to 10 years, then 20 to 30 years, and then beyond that.

You can design for this on your own, to a certain degree, but you really have to get the public aware of the issues so there’s buy-in on the other end. Architects are going to respond to what the client wants, so it’s necessary to frame messages in regard to their needs and provide tools that help them see over the horizon.—As told to Steve Cimino

Read more of our interviews with experts on water.