Vulnerability to 85 cm of SLR.41 The RCP 8.5

Vulnerability Report of Marseille, France



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            Marseille is the second largest city in France, and located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, it has 852,516 people within the city limits and over 1.8 million including the metro area.1, 39 The old port of Marseille has been a thriving economic center for centuries and the rich history of the city originates from diverse migrations of people from northern Africa, Greece, and Italy during periods of conflict and prosperity. Most notably Marseille is characterized as a vibrant cultural center of art, music, and sport on the coast. As the city was settled over 2,000 years ago, the architecture and organization of the city originate from the past when there was no concern of sea level rise.1 Now, there are modern concerns about how vulnerable the city is to rising sea levels and changing climate patterns. The lowest points of the city are the port regions, and the economic zones near the coast. Most of which lies within 1m above sea level. The elevation changes drastically and within a kilometer, the elevation is over 30m. Mountains surround Marseille, which lead up to the north. The total loss of the port region would exceed $750 billion in damages.40 Marseille contributes to 2.8% of France’s GDP, accounting for nearly $4 billion each year. Here, the Mediterranean Sea is rising at about 1.26 ± mm per year, leading to potential risk for valuable economic areas and low-lying regions of the city to potentially be constantly inundated by 2050, and sustained submersion by 2100.38 With higher projections, by the turn of the century, there may be 26 cm to 85 cm of SLR.41 The RCP 8.5 projections would completely change the coastal regions of this ancient city, rendering a need for infrastructure improvements and likely reorganization of the economic port along with commercial districts near the coasts. Thousands of properties, residential and commercial, are placed right along the sea, as they were built before the Urbanization Plan (PLU).30 These are properties which are most at risk. Addressing the state of the sea near Marseille, one form of measurement is a tidal gauge, called a totalisateur, which was stabilized in 1886.27 Providing consistent tidal gauge readings until 1988 when the attendant retired and it took some time to hire a new attendant before readings continued as normal.27 But from Marseille, the readings were very similar 1.26 ± .04 mm per year from 1886-2003.38 However, from 1993-2012 the rate of rise was 2.26 ± .02 mm per year.24 The city receives over 300 days of sun each year, characterized by windy, cool winters, with the intense mistral winds from the Rhône valley to the north, and hot, dry summers. The rainy season falls between February to April, and September to November. The most concerning part of changing climate for Marseille is the overall heat in the summer, which brings with it concern for fire in a region which gets less than 51cm of precipitation each year, and hotter, drier summers can spark intense firestorms as seen with the large wildfire that burned near Toulon, and hour to the east, in 2017. The city gets over two-thirds of their water supply from the Marseille-Durance canal, and not from aquifers underground. This aqueduct, originating from the Durance River to the north (A tributary of the Rhône), is regulated by treatment plants which reduces or increases its flow to as needed, suppressing the flooding risk unless by heavy rainstorms. In events of heavy precipitation, there are two intermittent rivers, the Huvaune, and the Jarret that can overtop their banks, causing floods in the city center. The Huvaune, specifically, has man-made levees and dikes to control the flow of water through times of extreme precipitation.21





            Marseille has implemented adaptation plans in the past, including coastal hardening, jetties, revetments, and blockades for tidal action and waves in the port. Though they are more mitigation strategies than adaptation plans. Marseille as a whole is not at present risk to become inundated, and within 100 years will face challenges, but not on the scale of many Pacific islands, which, likely will be submerged by the time Marseille is experiencing port flooding if present trends continue. The economic center may be inundated, or at high risk, within 80 years, but the residents will survive, and have places to go further inland. If the Earth experiences drastic ice-shelf collapse in Antarctica, there will be less time to adapt (for everyone). The world faces the same flaw in prescience, not just the French. Marseille, however, is addressing climate change via energy use and total emissions.2 The Plan du Climat de Marseille to reduce emissions was completed in 2012 which calls for gas and pollution reduction of buildings, transports, and industry in the city and state (Provence/Côte-d’Azur {PACA}). Overall the city has a plan to reduce their carbon footprint by 12% by 2020. These measures will keep Marseille in line with climate emissions and temperature rise levels in accordance with the Paris Accords.2,41

The Marseille Operation GIREL (Gestion des Infrastructures pour la Restauration Ecologique du Littoral – Infrastructure Management for the Environmental Rehabilitation of the Coasts), which was a port climate adaptation plan organized to improve infrastructure around the vulnerable port region ran for five years, 2011-2016.15, 16, 17, 18, 19 Although, admittedly, there is a flood adaptation plan in the region that began in 2017 (PPRI – Downstream Rhône Valley – Vernaison, Grigny, Givors), Marseille is not directly included in it because the largest river, the Rhône, and its estuary delta, enters the Mediterranean Sea 90 kilometers to the northwest, near Arles.8 Plans like these could be used as examples for other regions to build off of. The GIREL plan specifically focused on the economic zones and ecosystems of the port area, but the scope was limited. As this region is most vulnerable to sea level rise in particular, it restored parts of the port ecosystems which were damaged over time, valuated and addressed the infrastructure in the region to better manage port operations, and left space for development in the event of changes to the marine ecosystems.17, 18 Two European Directives, the Water Framework Directive and the Strategy for Marine Environment Directive, have been ratified to prioritize restoration of coastlines for work in the future, the GIREL plan followed in suit to these overreaching frameworks. Most importantly, the National Adaptation Assessment Report for France was completed two years ago, and this bodes well for future plans.


Important Stakeholders


The French government is leading the way by ratifying the Paris Accords, and hosting climate summits for leaders to discuss ways to curb rising temperatures, carbon emissions, and ecosystem pressure. Unlike the regime in the United States, France deems it unacceptable to deny climate change. 32


            “The conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out in its last report for 2007 are final: man is indeed responsible for climate change affecting Earth.” 6

            “Since the 4th IPCC report… doubt is no longer permitted as to whether global warming is now a reality. The global warming recorded in mainland France during the 20th Century is about 30% greater than the average warming throughout the globe. The average annual temperature has risen by .09°C in mainland France, compared to .74°C globally. These values are even higher if we only concern ourselves with the second half of the 20th century: increase to 1.1 to 1.5°C over the period of 1950-2000.” 32


The National Adaptation Assessment Report for France was completed in 2015, which has paved the way for adaptation plans in other areas of the country. From 2011 until 2015 this assessment was being compiled, and currently now more research is underway, including a marine submersion risk assessment of Marseille which began in May of 2017.10 Marseille’s urban development plan, and current adaptation considerations will allow the people of the city make better decisions now and into the future about development by the coasts.12, 30

            For the GIREL Plan, the major stakeholders were the AERMC (Agence de l’eau Rhône Méditeranée-Corse – Mediterranean, Rhone Valley, and Corsica Water Agency),8 Maritime Harbour of Marseille, multiple R&D groups (Suez Environment Lyonnaise des Eaux, Biohut, BioRestore), Eco-ocean, Marseille Port Authority, and the University of Perpignan.15-19 Invested interests include(d) the tourism and hospitality sectors as well as the railroads and industrial industries that provide economic benefits and transit to the city. Biohut and BioRestore had projects to improve seaweed growth and ecosystem health. Certain areas had been designated to enhance the probability that marine flora develop, which leads to better fish nurseries and ecosystem biodiversity. Over 1200 seaweed colonies were in place and successful after the project completed.19

            The port authority of Marseille is still concerned about ecosystem degradation in their port, which is one of the busiest and profitable in the southern Mediterranean Sea. In accordance with the National Adaptation Assessment Report, there are many projects around their coast addressing many different issues, but the GIREL plan focused on ecosystem renovation and infrastructure improvement in Marseille specifically. (see Appendix 1 for locations of other adaptation plans.)




The costs were €5 million for the five-year project.16 AERMC was the primary funder for the project’s duration.13 No evaluation has been completed yet for complete benefits, but the work completed should improve the restoration of ecosystems and bring the region better defenses in the face of rising sea levels. Infrastructure improvements will provide the port region better efficiency and structure for the next steps. Costs on other projects ranged from 20,000 € and above 30 million.


Implementation Status


The GIREL plan was written in 2010, but adopted and implemented in 2011. The GIREL project stated here ended in 2016, but the framework exists for further developments.15-19


Analysis and Barriers


            There are a lot of promising adaptation plans on the southern coast (see Appendix 1),3 concerning Marseille, there are not a lot of adaptation plans for sea level rise yet. The Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Marseille is quite concise when determining limits of carbon emissions, which is a fundamental concern for France right now.2 However, this plan of action is completely on point about carbon emissions, not rising water levels. What is imperative to note, France is very open about their adaptation strategies and what they wish to accomplish for the future. Also, there are a handful of projects currently or have already been completed in PACA, which lends credence to their transparency on addressing issues in the future. Scientific discovery and research is highly valued and though nothing concrete is in place for Marseille in the now, the future is on good ground. The barriers come from funding streams, organization, and inertia within municipalities. Although the GIREL plan was funded by a public group, its costs pale in comparison to other projects in and around the city. (Other natural disasters are not explicitly taken into account, such as earthquakes and tsunami, but I came across articles which require buildings to meet architectural standards for earthquakes and there is an tsunami assessment for the Mediterranean Sea as well.)




            The best path forward is to continue to research changing climate conditions and sea level rise. France wants to be a leader in the world when it comes to climate adaptation, as is evidence by their thorough national plan, the population’s fervor for the subject, and president Emmanuel Macron’s stance overall. Other French cities are more at risk, such as Brest on the northern coast, and La Rochelle, on the western Atlantic seaboard, but their populations are not as large as Marseille. Some positives to take out of Marseille’s situation are that their geography limits the extent of sea level rise in the city and the threat is not as great as the coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and this allows for the city better time to prepare. No one country can foresee an event as catastrophic as the west Antarctic ice shelf collapsing, which could raise levels in the oceans drastically in timescales no one is quite sure of, so the logical way forward is to set a baseline, which was accomplished by the National Adaptation Assessment, and address the region systematically. For a more complete adaptation for the future, focusing on the port’s ability to relocate would be an ideal place to start. In the lifetime of a child today, areas of Marseille which tourists know and love will be inundated. There may be no way to preserve everything, but with current timescales, the city likely has over half a century before drastic changes are needed. The city has the benefit of elevation change to reduce the impact of sea level rise. And to expand further up the mountain sides may be an option to consider. Focusing economic centers in newer regions away from the coast could reduce the stress economically of a retreat further down the line. With the economic value of the port, and the amount of jobs it provides, nearly 45,000, Marseille cannot afford to wait it out.40 Cutting emissions is a great start, and more countries would be wise to look at France’s current inertia as a blueprint for the coming years. The current administration is likely looking at more flood prone regions in the country and coupling relationships with countries to reduce GHG emissions. Until then, the National Adaptation Assessment Report’s guidelines on adaptation strategies and France’s stance on climate change provide positive signals for a changing global, national and regional climate. Marseille, as it continues to be a visible counterpoint to Parisian life, a magnet for art, sport, and culture for the people of France, will need to adapt accordingly if it is to keep that status past the turn of the 21st Century.