Using Maps to Model Sea Level Rise

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SWBAT model and analyze the impact of sea level raise on coastal communities.

Big Idea

Using GIS software, students work in groups to explore various sea level rise scenarios.

Getting Started

Students will simulate GIS* by layering the following:

  1. The predicted amount of sea level rise for a given coastal area of the U.S.
  2. Data on the effects of sea level rise on humans and the environment.

Students gather data related to sea level rise and draw the information they obtain onto a map. Then, they analyze the data they gather from different sources to draw conclusions about the effects of sea level rise. Different groups should be assigned to different levels of predicted sea level rise so that they can compare the effects at varying levels. 

*Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is software that is used to process and analyze data, which is then displayed on a map. GIS can be utilized by anyone seeking geographic information and it is often used by scientists and environmentalists to make predictions or observations.


  • Handouts
  • Computers with internet access.

Websites used in this activity:


15 minutes

For a Do Now activity, students read and answer a set of summary questions about Rising Sea Levels, a short article about how an island in the South Pacific is being affected by sea level rise. 

Key vocabulary words in the article include:

atoll, submerged, encroaching, unusable, evacuated, refugees, potable, agriculture, erosion, dependence

Most of these terms should be known to the average 8th grader. Atoll, potable and encroach being the exception

If you require your students to keep a vocabulary list, have them add these along with the definitions. It is the culture of my classroom that when we come across new vocabulary, which is weekly if not daily in science class, that all students attempt to define terms without the help of a reference text. In past years, I have taught Latin and some Greek, not to mention attending 16 years of Catholic school,  so I have a working knowledge base from which to lead Socratic questioning to get my students to define the terms. I really enjoy this part of teaching as I feel that I am also passing on a skill that will help them in all of their courses. 

After reading and summarizing, discuss with the class the key points from their summaries and review the vocabulary words. 


45 minutes

Before you begin, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with how to use this website. The following tutorial will help. 

With students working in groups of 4, I begin by going over the lab worksheet and the website. I manage this project by having each table group select one coast city to analyze. You may preselect the cities if you wish.

When you go to the main page of this website you will be shown a map of the United States. For each state in yellow you can view maps, forecast, analysis, comparisons, and fast look reports. Select one of the states below to begin.

Each state has multiple coastal cities to choose from. Select one of the cities as your focus of study and report the city and state out to your teacher. On the Map page they will be able to adjust the water level and observe how it will affect different variables of the city including social vulnerability, population, ethnicity, income and property.

Try adjusting the water level up and down to see how sea level rise is modeled on the map. Notice the areas that are under water.  Click on one of the variables to show the effect of sea level rise. They will focus on 4 water levels for the rest of this activity, 2, 3, 4, and 5 feet. Refer to the Observations and Discussion Handout to record responses.

Once that they have had a chance to observe the area under water it’s time to collect some data from the model. Navigate to the Forecast link at the top right of the page. Click on Forecast and then area listed below. On the next page they will the water level scroll bar on the right and two small pages titles Impacts and Location. On the small map of the state click on the city you are studying. Notice the graph that appears to the right.

This graph shows the  COASTAL FLOOD FORECAST INCLUDING SEA LEVEL RISE (TOTAL RISK) for the level they have selected. The graph will change as they adjust the water levels. Use this to fill in the data table on the Observations and Discussion page.

Next, click on the Projections tab and select Sea Level-Basic. Notice the graph that appears to the right. This graph shows the FORECAST SEA LEVEL RISE for the level you have selected. The graph will change as you adjust the flood levels. Use this to fill in the data on the Observations and Discussion page.

The last thing they will record for this section are projected flood levels and the record flood level. You can find these values to the right as part of the Water Level scroll bar. Click on each of the tiny arrows and record the values on the Observations and Discussion page.

For the analysis they will look at data specific to the area. Click on the Analysis tab.

On this page they will use the water level meter to analyze the impact of sea level rise on the community. Notice the boxes over to the right. Each of these includes values for the variable list at the top of the box. Scroll down the page to see all the data displayed. It's quite a bit.  Begin by clicking on ALL to see all the available data.

To simplify things, we will only focus on a few (population, property, houses, power plants, land, major airports and two of your choosing). To get started, adjust the water level to 2 feet and record the values in the data table on Observations and Discussion Page.  Continue recording data by adjusting the water level.

Next, capture some maps using a different website. Navigate to the web site

 Locate your area on the map and zoom in to 1km/3000 ft above the city. You can see the altitude in the bottom right hand corner of the map. Looking on the menu to the left of the screen, click on Sea Level Rise Tab. On this map you will use the slider bar to see how various levels of sea level rise will impact this area.

Adjust the water level then create a screen capture of the map. To do this, hold down Shift + Command + 4. Your cursor will change to a compass. Drag diagonally, corner to corner, and release to take a snapshot of the map.  Adjust the slider from 2-5 feet and capture a map for each level. Open a word processing or presentation application and compile all of the maps onto one page. Label each map with the water level and give it a title (City, State, Title, Date). Save and print these to turn in with your date and discussion.

Take some time to explore the other map overlays. Click on the Vulnerability and Flood Frequency tabs. Record your observations on the Observations and Discussion page. 

Refer to the student pages below for what the finished lab looks like. 


20 minutes

To prepare and present their findings to the class, I asked my students to use an application for the iPad called Explain Everything. If you do not have access to iPads, you could have them create a deck of slides using an appropriate computer application or have them make a poster. Here are two examples: Rising Sea Level and Sea Level Rise (Ina and Sasha's group)

Once all the groups have completed and assembled their maps, have them present their data to the class starting with the lowest level of sea level rise. 

Use this time to look at the patterns in the data. If you live near the area you have selected to study, talk about the local attractions, neighborhoods, etc. impacted at each level. 

Here are some questions to consider for discussion:

  • At your group’s increment of sea level rise, what was the number of people who were affected?
  • What do you think the people living in these areas will do when their communities become flooded by sea water?
  • What would you do to prepare for sea level rise (personally, as a community, and as a business)?
  • When is sea level rise predicted to occur in the affected areas? How many years away from now is that?
  • There are many species of animals and plants that do not live in areas that are predicted to flood. Do you there are any secondary consequences of sea level rise that will affect these species?
  • What are things we can do now to help protect these inland species from the future consequences of sea level rise?


In the video below, I ask one of my students to reflect on this model of learning and how it helped her appreciate the impact of sea level rise on populated areas.