Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Haaretz investigation reveals that the Environment Ministry is predicting a one-meter rise in sea levels by 2050 due to the climate change. The consequences will be dire – but the government is woefully unprepared

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The projected rise in sea levels over the next 30 years on a beach in Haifa.
The projected rise in sea levels over the next 30 years on a beach in Haifa.Credit: Google Earth
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Over the past two months, the Ministry of Defense and the IDF have become concerned about security installations along Israel’s coastline. “Are they going to disappear underwater?” asked security officials in several closed meetings held over the past few weeks. “How much of the shore are we going to lose, and when?” they wondered. The planning administration has also come to understand recently that it is a problem to continue building along the coast as if water levels are not rising year after year.

The newly installed head of the administration, Rafi Elmaliach, recently asked the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institution to prepare a model that will demonstrate the expected impact on the coastline and on critical infrastructures such as desalination plants that may be damaged. When Elmeliach realized that no such model currently exists he established an inter-ministerial team to map out potential scenarios and address lacunae in knowledge. Ilan Lavie, head of the Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company, says storms and waves will get stronger and also warns of the dangers that cliffs along Israel’s coastline may collapse.

Everyone has reason for concern: The sea level along Israel’s coast is rising due to the climate crisis caused by the burning of fossil fuels. A Haaretz investigation based on conversations with more than 20 sources in government offices, local authorities, and scientists, as well as information received from many government bodies and authorities, reveals new information, according to which the changes Israel needs to prepare for are likely to be far more serious than the relevant authorities had understood until now.

In blue, the current waterline; in red, the projected waterline in 2050 after sea-level rises. Israel currently has no model to predict the expected impact on the coastline of continue rises in the sea level.

In the next few days, the chief scientist at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Prof. Noga Kronfeld Schor, will warn the government that Israel needs to prepare for an increase of one meter in the sea level by 2050 and up to two-and-a-half meters by 2100. Until now, various state authorities had estimated, based on international forecasts, that sea levels would rise by some 25 cm by the middle of the century and by 70 cm by the end of the century. In other words, up-to-date professional forecasts point to an urgent need to intensify preparations for the impact of the climate crisis.

The latest forecasts by the Ministry of Environmental Protection take into account the rapid melting of icebergs in Antarctica and Greenland and point to dramatic conclusions – within three decades significant sections of Israel’s beaches will disappear due to rising sea levels. Multiple sources explained that even a half-meter rise in sea levels would lead to many beaches in Israel disappearing. Among those expressing concern were members of the Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company (“concerns for the existence of Israel’s beaches; loss of tens of meters); the Tel Aviv Municipality (“half a meter of coast for each centimeter that sea levels rise”); and the Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Environmental Protection (“we will lose most of the beaches that we are used to”).

In blue, the current waterline; in red, the projected waterline in 2050 after sea-level rises. The Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Environmental Protection warns that “we will lose most of the beaches that we are used to."

The problem does not end with the loss of large parts of Israel’s beaches. The sources and authorities we spoke to all warned that desalination plants along the coastline, cliffs, drainage infrastructure and security installations could all find themselves facing various levels of risk. The danger of extreme storms and waves of unprecedented height that will hit coastal areas and infrastructures is also increasing.

Despite all of the above, Israel has no official forecast for rising sea levels or a threat scenario that planning authorities, defense officials and local authorities can work with, in order to be prepared and understand how rising sea levels will affect them. Without data and damage forecasts, there are no budgets or a body that is devoted to finding solutions. Currently, the climate administration – a small body operating within the Ministry of Environmental Protection with almost no authority and without a budget – is responsible for handling all aspects of the climate crisis. Professional sources that we spoke to all agreed that Israel must have a special body devoted to rising sea levels because of the broad implications of the process, adding that it would be preferable for it to be under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Scientists and sources involved in the field stress that the increase in sea levels is a scientific field rife with uncertainty and that the increase could be worse than forecast or more moderate, depending on the efforts made to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis. But these experts nevertheless agree that even in the most optimistic scenario, the expected rise in sea levels is likely to claim dozens of meters of Israel’s beaches, depending on location.

At Haaretz’s request, the Survey of Israel prepared a map that exposes for the first time the implications of a rise of one meter in sea level of Israel’s coastline. Survey of Israel is the government agency responsible for mapping Israel, surveying the earth in the territory of the state, and the division of land for the purpose of land registration. Its responsibilities include the measurement of sea levels. It is the only body that has data on the height and slope of every point in Israel and is thus able to produce a map of this nature. The map shows the current watershed line and the location of the future line expected in the event of a one-meter rise in the sea level. The map is based on elevation data, aerial photos, and analysis of geographic data.

In blue, the current waterline; in red, the projected waterline in 2050 after sea-level rises. Some beaches will lose only a few meters while others will lose dozens.

A one-meter rise in sea levels is expected to large parts of Nahsholim and Dor beaches. In the Nahal Hadera area the sea is expected to penetrate in a thin strip hundreds of meters inland, and in Netanya, large parts of the Sironit and Herzl beaches will be lost. In Tel Aviv, Gordon Beach will see significant changes, while the narrow beaches in the Jaffa area may disappear completely. In Ashdod, the sea will move east covering tens of meters of beach. In the north, in Bustan HaGalil, a narrow strip of water will penetrate hundreds of meters inland toward agricultural areas. In Haifa, the beach below the Leonardo hotel is expected to disappear almost entirely.

What will the extent of the damage be? It is not expected to be uniform – some beaches will lose only a few meters while others will lose dozens. Even if sea levels rise in line with the most conservative forecasts there will be significant changes to Israel’s coastline.

In blue, the current coastline; in red, the projected coastline in 2050 after sea-level rises. According to Prof. Zviely, the rise in sea level is liable to cause salination of groundwater and damage to agricultural lands close to the coasts.

The dean of the Faculty of Marine Sciences at the Rupin Academic Center, Prof. Dov Zviely, believes that in practice the impact of rising sea levels will be worse than that presented on the map. “The beaches that we are familiar with will be washed away and most will disappear, and the sea will go right up to the cliffs. Visitors to the Tel Aviv promenade will go right down to the sea. All the river estuaries will be flooded along with their immediate environments such as the Haifa Bay area and North Tel Aviv and the Yarkon.”

A government source who was shown the map said: “This is an earthquake that shows for the first time how vulnerable Israeli is to the rising sea level. It is inconceivable that the authorities have not done so themselves and will now discover the forecast in the paper, but better late than never.”

Several sources added that the Prime Minister’s Office – during the terms of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, and now under Yair Lapid -- did not look into the issue and the dangers it poses to Israel.

The map below shows the expected retreat of Israel's coastline. In blue is Israel's current coastline; in red is the projected coastline in 2050 following the sea-level rise.

Three decades of sea-level rises

What, indeed, is the connection between the climate crisis and the rise in sea level? “The rate of the rise in sea level has accelerated since the beginning of the industrial era,” says Dr. Eli Biton, director Dept. of Physical Oceanography at Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research. Biton notes that the reason for this is “the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which cause warming and acceleration in the melting of the ice masses at the poles.” He also notes that sea water expands when it is heated.

In effect, the sea level in Israel has been rising every year for the past three decades. Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research has been monitoring the level since 1992 and its people have found that over this period there has been an average annual increase of 4.6 millimeters (0.18 inch)—totaling 13.8 centimeters (5.4 inches) since the measurements began. For the sake of comparison, the global rate of rise in sea level was 3.5 millimeters (0.13) millimeters in that same period.

But what is past is not what will be. In recent months, the chief scientist at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, has been following with concern the accumulating findings on the rise in sea level in the world. “Three new studies, two of them concerning the contributions of the Antarctic glaciers and the third concerning the contribution of the glaciers in Greenland to the rise in sea level, have very much exacerbated the forecasts, which even until now haven’t been optimistic,” she says.

“According to these studies and conversations we have had with scientists, Israel must prepare for a rise of up to a meter (39 inches) by 2050 and a rise of 2 to 2.5 meters by 2100. Since the melt rate is increasing, in 2150 the rise of the sea level in Israel is expected to be about five meters. This is an area of research with great uncertainty, but we understand that these are the levels to which the sea in Israel will rise – and the question is how fast.” The chief scientist adds that “the forecasts were conservative and we need to prepare and build infrastructures for the long term and acknowledge that we will lose extensive parts of the coastlines.

Dr. Biton of Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research also talked about the new studies and said: “We expect that sharp global rises due to the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland will also be manifested in the measurements along Israel’s coasts.” According to him, the rise in sea level in the coming decades is expected to cause “flooding of areas and possible damage to national infrastructures like ports, water desalination plants and power stations.”

According to Prof. Zviely, the rise in sea level is liable to cause salination of groundwater and damage to agricultural lands close to the coasts. The expert added that in cases where the sea water reaches streams, the significance of a higher sea level is that the water in the streams has no possibility of flowing into the sea easily and then floods are caused upstream – that is, in inland areas further from the coast.

Moreover, Pam Pearson, the director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who was part of the negotiating team that formulated the Kyoto Protocol on global warming also warned in an interview to Haaretz: “We ae seeing the rate of the rise in sea level accelerating, and according to the data we have in hand, Israel must prepare for a rise in sea level to the extent of 2 meters (6.7 feet) by 2100. The large ice caps respond slowly, but the moment they move, it is very hard to stop them.”

Eroding the base of the cliffs

The latest forecasts could very well set new, and serious, challenges for those bodies that prepared for lower forecasts. For example, the Israel Port Authority told Haaretz that it had taken into account the prediction of an expected rise in sea level in the next 50 years and 100 years of 40 centimeters and 46 centimeters respectively. The authority said that based on such a rise, the piers and pilings built in the new ports are higher than required – but they are still not prepared for a rise of a meter or two.

The Water Authority said it was prepared for a rise in sea level of tens of centimeters, too: “Because this is a phenomenon that develops at a slow pace, the Water Authority is following the phenomenon through the monitoring of sea water penetration into the aquifer.”

The Tel Aviv municipality said such a rise in sea level could well cause the obstruction of the outlet to the sea of the Yarkon Stream and other coastal infrastructure interfaces leading to and from the Mediterranean – and could damage the functioning of the city’s drainage systems during extreme rainstorms – which appear with growing frequency because of climate change, and which the preparations for are also inadequate.

Lavie, the CEO of the Coastal Cliffs Preservation Company, is also very worried. The company says the rise in sea level that has already occurred has led to the loss of parts of Israel’s coast, and they estimate that every additional rise of half a meter means the loss of about 30 meters of the shore, depending on the type of ground and its steepness. Officials from the company said: “The width of the strip of beach for most beaches in Israel is smaller than 50 meters, so the rise in sea level gives rise to a serious fear as to the existence of Israel’s beaches.”

Lavie is especially worried about the effects of the process on the cliffs along the coast, because the erosion of the width of the beaches brings the waves closer to the base of the cliffs – which undermines the base and leads to the collapse of the cliffs. “The rise in sea level and the strength of the storms and waves cold very well cause severe damage to the coastal cliffs. Nontreatment and not appropriate preparation could lead to a significant worsening,” Lavie told Haaretz.

Even though the warnings concerning sea level rise have been heard all over the globe for years, Israel still does not have an official body in charge of the preparations for the rise in sea level or for producing the official maps for preparing for it.

The director general of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, Alon Zask, says that as far as the future forecasts are concerned, his staff relied on the international calculations without using additional data specific to Israel’s coastline – because they don’t have the appropriate computer systems to carry out the calculation of such forecasts at a high enough resolution. The institute is waiting for the establishment of the new climate forecasting center next year, for which the government only recently allocated a budget – after many reports in Haaretz and warnings from a number of bodies. In addition, Israel does not have forecasts other than the conclusions of studies conducted about the Mediterranean Sea in general.

Ambassador Gideon Behar, the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for climate change and sustainability, told Haaretz that the government must deal with the problem: “There is a fear, that is growing and becoming more likely, of a rise within a short period, and Israel is very vulnerable because of its long coastline. This requires us to make system-wide and across-the- board preparations by all the relevant bodies in the country. From experience around the world, we have learned that such preparation must include an authorized body whose role is to provide estimates and forecasts about the rise in sea level, setting national safety factors to distance construction and development from the shore, conducting risk assessment surveys of which infrastructure and which locations might be harmed, such as cliffs along the coast, ports, desalination facilities and power plants, and more, and taking steps to protect them,” said Behar.

“Lacking advance preparation, we could very well find ourselves in a situation in which we will need to spend huge sums in the future on protecting residential neighborhoods and infrastructure from the danger of flooding, and it is possible that we will not be able to protect some of them and they will be abandoned,” added Behar. “There are places in the world where residents are being paid to leave their homes and move to higher locations. We must not be complacent about the danger.”

The fears are backed up by research studies. The results of a study from 2019, which was conducted by the Faculty of Marine Science at the Ruppin Academic Center and the marine sciences department at the University of Haifa, found that the Ashdod Beach, Tayelet (Promenade) Beach in Tel Aviv and the Dado Beach in Haifa – would be flooded even in the scenario in which sea level rose by just 40 centimeters. According to Zviely, one of the leaders of the research: “Our studies and the present forecasts state that in another few decades we will be left without most of the bathing beaches. To not prepare for this is irresponsible because we cannot respond within a short period of time. I have worked in this field for over 20 years, and unfortunately most government ministries and bodies in Israel are sitting on the fence and not doing anything,” said Zviely.

The forum of local governments along the coast, part of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, which represents all the local authorities along Israel’s shoreline, has expressed great frustration over the lack of government action. Last year, the forum approached the government, along with the Israel Union for Environmental Defense nonprofit organization, demanding to create a reference scenario for the rise in sea level, but the government did not agree to do so. The head of the forum, former Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz, who is also the head of the Institute for Local Government at Tel Aviv University, and the chairman of the forum, Herzliya mayor Moshe Fadlon, told Haaretz that already as of today, we are witnessing damage because of the rise in sea level. “There is a rise in damage and in the collapse of cliffs, a rise in storms coming off the sea, increasing penetration of sea water into [drainage and other infrastructure outlets] and streams, erosion of beaches and a rise in flooding from the east,” they said.

Pines-Paz and Fadlon said they fear for the future because the rise in sea level will lead to “damage to the function of coastal infrastructure in general, and the outlets of drainage systems in particular, damage to public and private structures on the beaches, a need to invest resources in raising coastal structures, reinforcing or moving them to the east and harming tourism. All these will lead to heavy economic losses to both local governments along the coast and to property owners.”

Orly Babitsky, an expert in coastal management and sustainability who work with the forum of coastal local governments and cities such as Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Eilat – warns of the worst-case scenario, in other words, a combination of the rise in sea level along with an extreme climatic event. “In such a situation, powerful waves will reach the shore on an already higher sea level from the west, and large quantities of surface runoff from the east. This is a situation that will leave the shore in a ‘vise’ and is expected to significantly affect the entire surroundings, natural and human,” she said.

The Tel Aviv municipality is tired of waiting for the government and has begun conducting studies and independent steps for protection. Among these actions, the city has prepared a sensitivity map of the shore, established a unit for the development of the marine area – and in the next few weeks will issue a request for proposals from research organizations to study the effect of the rise in sea level on the city’s entire shoreline. The municipality said they are “monitoring information on a regular basis, but that is not enough. The view must be global and include fixed marine protections, too. Unfortunately, there a large shortage of data on a national level,” said city hall.

So what comes next? Kronfeld-Schor from the Environmental Protection Ministry says that in order to understand the expected implications of the rise in sea level, the ministry is now building a climate risk portal, where maps of the rise in sea level will be presented, as well as its expected implications under different scenarios, among other information.

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit told Haaretz that “in light of the understanding that the climate crisis has potential consequences on developing and operating the IDF’s forces, staff work is underway now, and is in its advanced stages, for providing a long term solution.”

The director general of the Survey of Israel, Hagay Ronen, recently ordered the establishment of a special unit for climate crisis issues, which will provide the government with data and measurement tools. “Measurement capabilities, an aerial photo archive, geographical information and the analytical abilities of the center are a central tool in preparing for and formulating a national plan on the issue,” said Ronen.

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