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Published Study Identifies When Hundreds of Coastal Communities Will Face Inundation, Possible Retreat

Submitted by on July 12, 2017 – 11:03 pmNo Comment

(Union of Concerned Scientists)  Meeting Paris Agreement Goals Could Spare Many Communities from This Fate  —  More than 90 U.S. communities already face chronic inundation from rising seas caused by climate change, and the number could jump to nearly 170 communities in less than 20 years and as many as 670 by the end of the century, according to a study by analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published in the peer-reviewed journal Elementa today. The analysis is the first to look at the entire coastline of the lower 48 states and identify communities that will experience flooding so extensive and disruptive that it will require either expensive investments to fortify against rising seas or residents and businesses to prepare to abandon areas they call home. The analysis projects when communities can expect to see this degree of flooding and which cities and towns might avoid such flooding if the long-term temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement are achieved.

The study was published on the same day a 2,200 square mile iceberg—one of the largest ever recorded and nearly the size of Delaware—broke off from an ice shelf in Antarctica, highlighting how quickly the planet is warming.

The analysis defines a threshold above which flooding becomes unmanageable for people’s daily lives. The threshold—10 percent or more of a community’s usable, non-wetland area is flooded at least 26 times per year or the equivalent of a flood every other week—was determined after consulting technical experts and residents of communities currently experiencing disruptive flooding. Once a community—delineated by the Census Bureau as county subdivisions—crosses this threshold, it is considered “chronically inundated.” To put it in perspective, Miami Beach—widely considered a poster child for rising seas—has not yet reached the 10 percent threshold set in this analysis, but is already facing tough, costly choices.

“Some 90 communities, mostly in Louisiana and Maryland where the land is also sinking, are already facing chronic inundation from sea level rise,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst in the Climate and Energy Program at UCS and a report author. “As global temperature increases sea level rise, several hundred coastal communities are looking at the same kind of chronic flooding around the middle of the century—from beach vacation destinations like the Jersey Shore and the Gulf Coast of Florida to larger cities, including Boston, Galveston, Savannah and Fort Lauderdale. By late century, four of the five boroughs of New York City (excluding the Bronx) would be chronically inundated. We hope this analysis provides a wake-up call to coastal communities—and us as a nation—so we can see this coming and have time to prepare.”

The UCS study assessed three sea level rise scenarios: The “low scenario” assumes carbon emissions decline steeply, sea level rise is driven primarily by ocean warming with very little ice loss, and warming is limited to less than 2 degrees Celsius—in line with the primary goal of the Paris Agreement. The “intermediate scenario” projects carbon emissions peaking around mid-century and about 4 feet of sea level rise globally, with ice melting at a moderate rate that increases over time. In the “high scenario,” emissions rise through the end of the century and ice melts faster to yield about 6.5 feet of sea level rise. Recent studies suggest the high scenario is increasingly plausible due to accelerating ice sheet loss. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a substantially higher scenario.

The UCS analysis found:

  • By 2035, about 170 communities—roughly twice as many as today—will face chronic flooding and possible retreat from affected areas under the intermediate or high sea level rise scenarios, with more than 100 seeing at least a quarter of their land chronically flooded.
  • By 2060, about 270 communities will face chronic flooding and possible retreat from affected areas with intermediate sea level rise. This number jumps to 360 under the high scenario. About 40 percent of chronically inundated communities in either scenario would see at least half of their land flooded.
  • By 2100, about 490 communities—including roughly 40 percent of all oceanfront communities on the East and Gulf Coasts—will face chronic flooding and possible retreat with intermediate sea level rise, with nearly 300 seeing at least a quarter of their land chronically flooded. The number of communities jumps to about 670—including roughly 60 percent of all oceanfront communities on the East and Gulf Coasts—under the high scenario.
  • Many communities that never reach the 10 percent threshold of chronic inundation this century—such as Annapolis, Md. and Long Beach, Calif.—are nevertheless expected to see chronic flooding of important areas and infrastructure.

The chronically inundated communities in 2035—mainly on the Jersey Shore, mainland side of North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, southern Louisiana, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore—are mostly clustered together in places already experiencing regular tidal flooding, or neighboring such places. By 2060, entirely new stretches of coastline become chronically inundated under both the intermediate and high sea level rise scenarios, including the greater Boston area and northern New Jersey, as well as additional communities along the northern coast of Texas, and Louisiana and Florida’s Gulf Coasts.

To view the report PDF, click here.

The Elementa journal article can be found by clicking here.

To view a spreadsheet that sorts the chronically inundated communities by state, click here. To see the communities sorted by year, click here.

To use the interactive mapping tool, click here. The various tabs allow you to explore the amount of land area flooded, and the communities that are affected by the rising seas—including the ones that may have fewer resources to cope with chronic inundation, and ones that could avoid such flooding if the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals were achieved. By scrolling, you will see buttons for each time frame examined in the report for both the intermediate and high sea level rise scenarios. As you zoom in, the maps become more detailed. You can also click on a specific community for more details about it.

For state-specific fact sheets, community case studies, Spanish language materials, blogs and a video, click here.     READ MORE

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