Jennifer Rennicks contributed to this post.
Dear Coastal Citizens:
If you love the place we call home, please read on.
I sympathize with those who feel that sea level rise sounds like “doomsday scenario” scare tactics or with the thought that a rising sea enveloping our beloved communities sounds like futuristic science fiction. I must assure you, however, that sea level rise is a very real phenomenon and that it’s happening as you read these words.
In fact, two detailed and very revealing reports were released in 2011 confirming why sea level rise is becoming a major mainstream issue that coastal communities must address. Just a few highlights from those recent reports will illustrate the magnitude of what’s at stake if we do not adequately prepare for the impacts of sea level rise in the coming years.
In October 2011, the Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University published a report called “Southeast Florida’s Resilient Water Resources,” which details the challenges that sea level rise brings to water management infrastructure. It points out that a few of the major problems associated with sea level rise include reduced capacity for water drainage out of human-use areas, thus leading to flooding and major economic damage, saltwater intrusion of drinking water supplies, and conversion of freshwater wetlands to saltwater wetlands. The report notes that water managers are already starting to face these challenges, which will only increase in frequency and intensity as time passes. In addition, saltwater intrusion into freshwater supplies will be accelerated as the water table is lowered by increased population pressures as well as climate change fueled droughts. South Florida, like many, if not all, other places in the United States did not account for sea level rise when it originally installed its water drainage infrastructure. As a result, that region must now rapidly update its systems in order to retain the intended functionality of providing freshwater to and removing wastewater from communities. The report’s authors offer a note of caution: the price tag to upgrade water management systems will be very expensive; however, the cost of inaction will be even greater since communities may experience severe floods or freshwater shortages and then need to upgrade their systems anyway.
How much sea level rise can we along the Southeastern coast expect? That question is addressed by a May 2011 report, released by four counties in southeast Florida and serves as a unified multi-jurisdictional projection for sea level rise. The collaborative report projects we may experience sea level rise of between 3-7 inches by 2030, 9-24 inches by 2060, and 19.5-57 inches by 2100. According to the previously mentioned FAU study, it would only take 3-9 inches of rise to disable 70% of the drainage system capacity of southeast Florida. And as I mentioned in my last blog post, an 18-inch rise, expected by mid to late century, will likely result in $3.5 trillion dollars of damage in the Miami area alone, and billions more in damage all along our southern coast.
In addition to the projections, which are themselves quite compelling, another aspect of the report is confirmation that sea level rise is not a phenomenon we will see in the future, but rather a factor already happening in real time. The Florida counties’ sea level rise projections are actually based upon the historic tide data from Key West, which have documented a ~2 mm rise per year, or approximately 9 inches per 100 years. Even the staunchest climate deniers must acknowledge that if we simply continue along in this historic tide trend, without allowing for any additional rise attributable to climate change, we will soon be facing a serious problem that requires immediate action in coastal communities throughout the region. [However, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that almost every peer-reviewed, scientific study suggests that sea level rise will be hastened by ice sheet melt and thermal expansion due to rising temperatures. The science specific to this topic is constantly growing and, unfortunately, it seems that the more we learn, the higher we can expect sea levels to rise.]
It should come as no surprise that both of the reports I highlighted came from south Florida, arguably the region most vulnerable to sea level rise in the world. But make no mistake, other low-lying coastal regions in the united States and other parts of the world are not exempt from the risks. New Orleans, Charleston, the Chesapeake Bay and New York City areas are just a few of the major metropolitan areas extremely vulnerable to sea level rise, as well as many other smaller cities and towns up and down the coast, too.
Perhaps in part because of Charleston’s vulnerability to climate change impacts, it was selected to host the only Southeast Climate Conversation forum this Friday, January 13 as part of the third National Climate Assessment process. Southern Alliance for Clean Energy will participate in this forum along with other stakeholders and community members to learn about and discuss a range of regional issues, such as sea level rise, which may be affected by climate change in the coming decades. The event is open to the public but advanced registration is required.
There is no question that low-lying coastal communities are at risk from rising seas and our coastal infrastructure is not currently designed to withstand these impacts. Local governments will need to get prepared and an important first step for many communities (coastal or otherwise) is to draft and implement a climate action plan, formulated with community input and adopted by local governments. ICLEI-USA (Local Governments for Sustainability) is an organization that provides assistance in this process. These climate action plans will featured a range of adaptation measures including stronger building code enforcement, predictive climate risk-based insurance regulation, shoreline armoring, retreat, water resource management and land use planning to name a few. As the expression goes, “the tide waits for no man,” and higher tides and rising seas are climate change impacts that coastal residents like myself can ill afford to ignore.
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