A Rising Ocean: Mapping the imagination and presentation of sea-level rise on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter

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This is a report of the research done during the Summer School 2022 at the Digital Methods Initiative (UvA). The work and the report were developed in collaboration with the participants in the datasprint: Gabrielle Aguilar // Federica Bardelli // Laura Bruschi // Miranda García // Giulia Giorgi // Matthew Hanchard // Bakar Abdul-Rashid Jeduah // Natalie Kerby // Goran Kusić // Bruno Mattos // Samir van Oeijen Rodríguez // Alessandro Quets // Eivind Røssaak // Miazia Schueler // Zijing Xu // Xin Zhou // Chloe Sussan-Molson // Maud Borie // Alireza Hashemzadegan // Misha Velthuis

Sea-level rise has long been one of the most locally tangible impacts of climate change, both now and in the future. Due to accelerating climate change, the annual rate of sea-level rise has almost tripled over the last century, and the mean sea level rise is expected to rise 0.3m-1.0m by 2100 (Duijndam et al., 2021). The IPCC states that risks include increased flooding, erosion, loss of ecosystems and permanent submergence (Oppenheimer et al., 2019). In the UK, there are fierce debates over whether to protect or surrender coastal homes threatened by sea-level rise (Fisher, 2022), while in the Netherlands the trust in its strong water management and engineering tradition has led to the so-called myth of the dry feet—the idea that sea-level rise in the Netherlands, a country that in part lies below sea-level, can be countered by merely building higher dams (Schuttenhelm, 2020). Scenarios for the future of the Netherlands include new adaptation strategies of living with the water, in which parts of the land are given back to nature to preserve larger cities (Deltares, 2019). Globally, some of the world’s most populous cities, such as New York, Bangkok and Shanghai are amongst the most vulnerable (C40 Cities, 2018), while the existential threats to small islands such as Kiribati, Seychelles and the Maldives could result in entire states disappearing from the world (Martyr-Koller et al., 2021). Emblematic images of people wading through the flooded streets of Venice holding up their shopping bags or stopping for a coffee travelled the news and social media outlets as an illustration of the climate crisis, and the collision of rising sea levels, a sinking city, surging seasonal winds and failing governance as the city experienced its worst floods in 50 years (National Geographic, 2019).

There have been some notable efforts to visualise scientific projections of sea-level rise (e.g. Climate Central, 2015), as well as more creative attempts to communicate the threat such as the iconic Der Spiegel depicting a submerged Koln Cathedral (Mahony, 2016). Yet it is argued that sea-level rise remains a relatively low public concern given the huge potential risks to ecosystems and human habitats (Akerlof et al., 2017), while a recent advanced review of digital media research on climate communication found no research focused on the issue (Pearce et al., 2019). In this project, we will try to fill this gap, looking to see how both present and future sea-level rise is being imagined and interpreted on social media platforms, in terms of textual and visual content, information sources, locations, and point in time (i.e., future or present).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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