The Other Coastal Problem: Rising Seas

Published on July 2nd, 2010 | by

Rising sea levels will have an effect on coastal cities, and while the BP Gulf oil leak is getting the press these days, sea level rise from climate change will have an even more long-term and potentially dramatic effect. With the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a 7 – 23 inch rise by 2011 (with the possibility of 54 inch rise with accelerated Greenland and Arctic melting), communities on both the East and West coasts are taking measures now to prepare for what they know is coming, making incremental changes and learning from past disasters.

Photo Credit: rakanb Coastal areas like this Connecticut community are preparing now for sea level rise.
Coastal areas like this Connecticut community are preparing now for sea level rise.

East Coast

“You don’t have to do everything at once,” says David Major of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research. Major is a senior research scientist, economist and planner and was speaking to shoreline town officials in south-eastern Connecticut. On the East Coast, the Nature Conservancy, SeaGrant Connecticut and the Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR) at the University of Connecticut are organizing town hall meetings and sharing information through websites like Coastal Resilience. The overall tone is incremental preparation.

“We’re hoping to continue the dialogue throughout the summer,” said Adam Whelchel, director of conservation programs at Coastal Resilience.

The web tool is intended to help officials along New England’s coast make decisions about building roads and bridges, or what marshes to protect, with the most accurate and up to date information on sea level projections.

One big issue that will makes officials in any coastal town nervous is how the valuable shoreline property values will be affected.

“Is this going to create a backlash?” said Nathan Frohling, lower Connecticut River program director for the Conservancy, in a rhetorical question. Of course. But the backlash from not preparing would be even worse.

West Coast

Planning and preparation on the West coast comes with a heavy dose of reality, especially along many San Francisco bay area communities that already live with flooding as a normal part of their lives. Communities like Alviso, the lowest-lying point in the Bay area, have had intricate systems of levees in place for decades. The problem now is that they are outdated, often too low or not up to standards to deal with the projected sea level rises.

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun to take projected sea level rise into consideration when building any kind of new coastal protections, and only two of the many Bay area coastal regions have certified flood protection. The rest are looking at millions of dollars in upgrades. Until recently the Army Corps looked 50 years into the future and based levee height on the value of the real estate it was protecting when creating levees, so integrating sea level rise projections that go to 2100 means an entirely new way of looking at things.

The first and largest research project taking the extended projections into account is the San Francisco Bay Shoreline Study. More than 15,000 acres of salt flats, previously controlled by Cargill Salt, are part of a 40-year, $1 billion project to strategically restore the salt ponds to tidal wetlands.

Results on both coasts are, of course, uncertain until the sea level rise actually happens, but there is not uncertainty about the need to prepare.


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