Rising Seas

February 16, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 7
Are cities prepared for the growing threat? By Christopher Swope


Miami Beach and Miami (in background) face (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)  
Miami Beach and Miami (in background) face the possibility of unprecedented flooding by century's end due to global warming and rising seas. Losses from annual flooding in the world's 136 largest coastal cities could increase from $6 billion in 2005 to $1 trillion or more by 2100, with 153 million people displaced worldwide. (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)

Global warming is causing oceans to rise at alarming rates, threatening coastal cities across the globe with flooding. The East Coast of the United States is especially vulnerable, with Miami, New York City and Boston among the world's 10 most exposed metro areas. Scientists warn that under the most extreme scenarios, annual flooding worldwide could cause $1 trillion in losses by 2100 and submerge areas that are now home to more than 150 million people. But how much the seas will rise, and when, is unclear. Because of that uncertainty — and the popularity of waterfronts among developers and homeowners — cities are grappling with hard questions. How much sea level rise should they plan for, and how much time do they have? Should cities build expensive defenses or pull back from coastlines? South Florida is among the most aggressive at addressing sea level rise, investing millions of dollars in elevated highways, flood pumps and seawalls. In the Netherlands, engineers are devising ways to co-exist with rising tides, offering potential solutions that officials across the globe are studying.

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When Hurricane Irma ripped through South Florida last September, Miami's financial district and low-lying residential neighborhoods flooded.1

Less than a month later, many of the same areas were under water again. Only this time, no hurricane was to blame. The culprit was an elevated high tide, known as a “king tide,” that occurs when the Earth, sun and moon align in a way that amplifies tidal effects.2

“Today, Miami is flooding as if a hurricane went through it,” tweeted then-mayor Tomás Regalado.3

Residents wade through a flooded street in Chittagong, Bangladesh (Getty Images/Barcroft Media/Zakir Chowdhury)  
Residents wade through a flooded street in Chittagong, Bangladesh, on July 27, 2017, after heavy rains hit during high tide. Asian countries are the most vulnerable to rising seas and flooding, according to projections. By 2100, if carbon emissions continue unchecked and ice sheets melt at the high end of estimates, 9 million people in Bangladesh could be displaced. (Getty Images/Barcroft Media/Zakir Chowdhury)

South Florida's flooding problems demonstrate the dual risks coastal communities face at a time of global warming and rising seas. On one hand, sunny-day tidal flooding has become an increasingly regular problem in low-lying parts of Boston, Charleston, S.C., Galveston, Texas, and dozens of other cities and beach communities. Experts say such nuisance flooding is just a preview of an inundation that will intensify over the coming decades and leave some neighborhoods uninhabitable.

On the other hand, scientists expect powerful storms like Irma to become more common. Combined with hurricanes Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston in four days, and Maria, which lashed Puerto Rico, the 2017 hurricane season caused $265 billion in damages across the United States.4 But as sea levels rise, even moderate storms will be able to cause urban catastrophes.

Globally, increasing coastal development is exposing more people and property to risk. The most property value at risk is in the United States, and the most people at risk are in Asia. “As the population grows and our infrastructure grows, our exposure is going up,” says Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.5

A study in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts a staggering upswing in damages: In the world's 136 largest coastal cities, annual flood losses are on track to rise from $6 billion in 2005 to $1 trillion or more by 2100. Among the world's 10 most exposed metro areas are Miami; New York City-Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla.; Boston; Guangzhou, China; Mumbai, India; and Osaka-Kobe and Nagoya in Japan.6

The map shows the population at risk, in millions, in the top 20 nations threatened by sea level rise by 2100.  

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By 2100, rising seas worldwide could inundate areas where 153 million people now live if carbon emissions continue unchecked and ice sheets melt at the high end of estimates, according to projections by a group of nine climate scientists. Asian countries are the most threatened, with 30 million people in China at risk of displacement, followed by nearly 13 million in Vietnam. Figures are based on current population in affected areas and could change due to population growth or outmigration from flood-prone regions.

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Source: Robert E. Kopp et al., “Evolving Understanding of Antarctic Ice-Sheet Physics and Ambiguity in Probabilistic Sea-Level Projections,” Earth's Future, Dec. 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9gjqrk2

Country Population at Risk, in millions
China 30.2
Vietnam 12.9
Bangladesh 8.9
India 8
Japan 8
Indonesia 6.3
Netherlands 6
Egypt 3.2
Thailand 3.1
Philippines 2
United States 2
Myanmar 1.9
Germany 1.3
Iraq 1.1
United Kingdom 1
Brazil 0.9
Italy 0.9
Taiwan 0.7
United Arab Emirates 0.7
France 0.5

Sea level rise is one of the most consequential effects of a warming planet, which most scientists say results from the release of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.

Two things are occurring, scientists say. First, the oceans are absorbing much of the heat resulting from the Earth's warming, causing what scientists call “thermal expansion” — the water literally takes up more space. Second, enormous land-based polar ice sheets are melting, adding to the volume of water in the oceans. Lately, scientists have become worried about the accelerating loss of giant ice sheets over Greenland and Antarctica, which together contain enough water to cause 220 feet of global sea level rise if they were to melt entirely.7

Already, the planet's mean sea level has risen 7 to 8 inches since 1900, according to the U.S. government's comprehensive synthesis of the latest research, known as the National Climate Assessment. And the pace is accelerating: About 3 inches of that change has occurred since 1993.8

Sea level rise is not occurring at the same rates globally due to regional circumstances, such as subsidence. Parts of New Orleans are sinking by as much as 1.6 inches per year, even as the Gulf of Mexico rises. In addition, changes in ocean circulation, and even subtle shifts in the Earth's gravitational field as ice sheets melt, can produce local variations. Those forces appear poised to make the U.S. East Coast a sea level rise “hotspot,” with waters rising significantly faster than elsewhere.9 The same forces are expected to produce the opposite effect in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.10

The big question is what comes next. With no scientific consensus on the exact rate of sea level rise and its timing not fully understood, the National Climate Assessment has laid out several scenarios, their likelihood and the degree of confidence in them. Scientists are the most confident the seas will rise several more inches by 2030 and by at least 1 foot by 2100 — what the assessment calls a “low” scenario. That much rise would cause problems, but likely manageable ones, in low-lying cities such as New Orleans. An “intermediate” scenario — a 3.3-foot rise by 2100 — is likely and would be much worse. This rise would put significant areas under water in many major East Coast and Gulf Coast cities, as well as in a few cities in California, such as San Mateo.11

Because of the accelerating pace of ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica, the National Climate Assessment includes a “high” scenario — 6.6 feet of sea level rise by 2100 — and says 8.2 feet cannot be ruled out.12 Those high estimates are less likely but point to the two big wildcards of the second half of the 21st century: the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and the possibility of a sudden ice sheet collapse.

The line graph shows the gains and losses in ice mass for Antarctica and Greenland, from 2002 to 2017.  

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The ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica have been shrinking more rapidly in recent years, with the biggest losses in Greenland, according to data collected from NASA satellites. Scientists warn that the loss of both polar sheets — the most extreme possibility — could cause seas to rise 220 feet. Note that 1 gigaton equals 1 billion tons.

Source: “Land Ice,” NASA, updated Jan. 26, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/mnwrl4e

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Date of Measurement Gains and Losses in Antarctica's Ice Mass, in Gigatons of ice Gains and Losses in Greenland's Ice Mass, in Gigatons of ice
May 8, 2002 62.1 14.6
May 12, 2003 −29.3 1.2
May 15, 2004 −98.4 −269.6
May 16, 2005 −285.7 −429.6
May 16, 2006 −178.3 −714.7
May 16, 2007 −70.2 −883.1
May 15, 2008 −518.9 −1,258.3
May 16, 2009 −572.5 −1,470.9
May 16, 2010 −727.7 −1,664.3
May 16, 2011 −1,017.8 −2,139.2
June 17, 2012 −1,028.3 −2,556.1
May 16, 2013 −994.1 −3,038.7
May 16, 2014 −1,253.6 −3,095.5
April 27, 2015 −1,735.6 −3,278.2
May 19, 2016 −1,755.3 −3,495.2
Jan. 22, 2017 −1,933.9 −3,778.7

Despite rising seas, development in many coastal areas continues unabated. Even in Miami, where public awareness of sea level rise is high, developers are building condos in neighborhoods that flood regularly, and investors are snapping them up.13 In his recent book on cities and sea level rise, The Water Will Come, author Jeff Goodell asked Miami developer Jorge Pérez whether rising seas were changing his thinking about the real estate business in South Florida.

“We don't think about it on a daily basis,” Pérez responded. “I believe that in 20 or 30 years, someone is going to find a solution for this.” He added, “Besides, by that time, I'll be dead, so what does it matter?”14

Climate change skeptics view the threat posed by rising seas and a warming planet as unproven and exaggerated. President Trump has called climate change a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. Billionaire and conservative activist Charles Koch, whose financial interests include oil refineries and pipelines, said government rules intended to slow climate change are “making people's lives worse rather than better.”15

Many builders and real estate agents oppose coastal regulations, warning that restrictions can worsen housing shortages and stunt economic growth. In North Carolina, the Outer Banks Home Builders Association and Outer Banks Association of Realtors opposed the state's 2012 efforts to map sea level rise. “There's a fear that some think tank is going to come in here and tell us what to do,” said Willo Kelly, director of government affairs for the two groups.16

Local governments, meanwhile, depend on property tax revenues generated by the condos, hotels and other structures that developers build on the waterfront. Federal policies, such as subsidizing flood insurance in coastal zones, further encourage development, critics of these policies say.

Nevertheless, in the wake of devastating hurricanes, a growing number of local officials are planning for sea level rise. “We need to have a better seawall structure,” said Regalado. “What we saw with Irma could happen again. And if it does, the damage could be in the millions and millions.”17

Wall Street is taking notice as well. In November, Moody's Investors Service announced it would begin factoring climate change — and the degree to which states and local governments are adapting to it — into its municipal bond ratings.18

Cities in South Florida are among those taking the most aggressive action, perhaps because they have the most at risk. The metropolitan area of 6 million people stretching from Miami to West Palm Beach not only sits on the coast but is built on drained swamplands that flood easily.

In November, Miami voters approved the “Miami Forever” bond package, clearing the way for the city to borrow $200 million to fund storm-drain upgrades, flood pumps and seawalls. Miami Beach already has spent $100 million on flood defenses, such as elevated roadways and pumps to expel floodwaters, and plans to invest hundreds of millions more. Across the region, local governments are requiring new buildings to be designed in a way that puts the first finished floor above floodplain elevations.

These steps are intended to buy time — perhaps another 30 years — before more expensive and painful choices become necessary. Eventually, coastal cities may need to consider retreating from the most vulnerable areas. Spending on flood mitigation and infrastructure “has to be done on a cost-benefit basis,” said R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. “There will be places where the costs exceed the benefits. And where that happens, we might lose some communities.”19

“We stand at a crossroads,” says Daniel Stander, global managing director with Risk Management Solutions, a consulting firm that works with insurance companies, governments and others to assess risks. “We can either own this problem or kick the problem down the road. If we own this problem, it will cost us money now to get ahead of it. If we don't own the problem, we will find ourselves hamstrung by some economic shock in the future from which we might not recover.”20

As leaders at the federal, state and local level, face the challenge of rising seas, here are some key questions they are asking:

Should coastal development be limited?

The paradox of sea level rise is that so many people like to live, work and hang out near the same waters that increasingly threaten them. For coastal cities, waterfronts often represent the most valuable real estate and the places where developers, politicians and planners are most eager to build. Even in cities that are taking the threat of sea level rise seriously, there is often a disconnect between near-term decisions and long-term risks.

Boston is one of the nation's most exposed cities when it comes to sea level rise, in part because more than half of the city, including much of its most valuable property, is built on landfill vulnerable to flooding. Residents were reminded of this danger in January, when a fierce winter storm and higher-than-usual tides brought icy floodwaters crashing into the Seaport District and other areas.21

Boston is more aware of these risks than most cities. A planning exercise produced a landmark 2016 report, “Climate Ready Boston.” The report made clear which parts of the city were most vulnerable and laid out detailed strategies for reducing those vulnerabilities.22

Eight months later, however, the city released another plan, known as “Imagine Boston 2030,” which envisioned vast amounts of development in many of the same places. “Today, Boston is in a uniquely powerful position to make our city more affordable, equitable, connected, and resilient,” the report stated. “We will seize this moment to guide our growth to support our dynamic economy, connect more residents to opportunity, create vibrant neighborhoods, and continue our legacy as a thriving waterfront city.”23

Hurricane Sandy left much of the New York City region (Getty Images/ViewPress/Corbis/Kena Betancur)  
Hurricane Sandy left much of the New York City region, including Hoboken, N.J., underwater in 2012. Since then, New York has elevated electrical infrastructure and plugged holes that allowed water to pour into subway tunnels. (Getty Images/ViewPress/Corbis/Kena Betancur)

Likewise, since Hurricane Sandy swamped many areas of New York City in 2012, the city has elevated electrical infrastructure and plugged holes that allowed water to pour into subway tunnels. Yet The New York Times found that “the city has continued to advance toward the water, with glass high-rises stretching across the riverfront.”24

Cities keep increasing their exposure to risk in part because developers and those who finance them can still make money building near coastal waters. Sea level rise is not affecting their rates of return — yet. “The building community and bankers and insurance companies think in a 30-year horizon,” says Debbie Orshefsky, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who specializes in development and zoning law. “In 30 years, it will be kind of bad but not awful. In 50 years, that's not the case, but we're not being instructed by our clients to think beyond 30.”25

Meanwhile, local governments have an incentive to keep coastal development going: They rely heavily on property taxes for revenue, and in many communities the valuable coastal land contributes a disproportionate share of the money needed to fund schools, police, fire and other local services.

James F. Murley, Miami-Dade County's chief resilience officer — the official responsible for strengthening the county's defenses against natural disasters — notes that this dynamic is especially prevalent in Florida because the state has no income tax. “Property taxes are key to having a vibrant economy here,” Murley says. “We can't make any of these other improvements if we don't have an economy that's creating revenue.”

State and federal policies also play a role. The National Flood Insurance Program subsidizes insurance for homeowners living in flood zones, shielding many policyholders from the true risk of buying homes in such areas. Critics say the program bases its rates on outdated flood-risk maps and allows homeowners to repeatedly rebuild in areas that flood regularly.26

Many coastal homeowners have no desire to think beyond the short-term, experts say. Oceanside, Calif., has numerous oceanfront homes atop bluffs susceptible to erosion. “A lot of [these property owners] just go, ‘Oh, hell, I'm not going to be around,’” says Russ Cunningham, an Oceanside city planner. “‘If the seas rise 25 to 30 years from now, and I'm 60 years old, I don't plan to be around to see that.’”

Indeed, coastal protection raises thorny questions about property rights. After Hurricane Sandy, arguments over beach replenishment raged in communities up and down the battered New Jersey shore. State and local leaders pushed for higher sand dunes to protect property from storm surges. But in some towns, those plans have been delayed by lawsuits from property owners who complain the dunes will obstruct their ocean views.27

A lot is riding on the question of how much and how fast sea levels will rise. If lower scenarios occur, the debate over coastal development will be less tense. But if higher scenarios come true, some communities may have no choice but to consider retreating from the shore. That is already happening in two low-lying towns on Staten Island, N.Y. After Sandy, more than 600 homeowners in Ocean Breeze and Oakwood Beach whose homes were destroyed took buyouts from the state, agreeing to let their properties go back to nature.28

Experts cite two problems with buyouts, however. They are expensive, and not everyone takes the offer. Governments at all levels will need to overhaul how these processes happen over the coming decades, according to climate preparedness specialist Shana Udvardy, who contributed to a recent report on sea level rise by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal Cambridge, Mass., group seeking solutions to global warming. “Retreat is going to be the last option people will consider,” she says. “But we need to be thinking more broadly and comprehensively on how this nation is going to handle retreat, the financial incentives, and thinking about where people are going to go.”

Stander of Risk Management Solutions agrees that climate risks are “not yet priced into the market.” But he says they will be, eventually. “It's not priced in, in terms of property prices, in terms of the government-subsidized flood insurance program, and it's not priced into our bond rating systems. The key word is ‘yet.’”29

Can sea level rise be controlled?

Because of climate change, some amount of sea level rise is locked in. The Earth is already warming, polar ice is already melting, and nothing currently stands in the way of those trends continuing. The wildcard is how much more will occur, and when.

“What we do from now on can determine what's going to happen in the second half of the century,” says Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The thing is, we don't know the trajectory.”

Curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions would slow the rate of global warming and help limit sea level rise, scientists say. That, essentially, is the goal of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a voluntary accord signed by nearly every country in 2015, to keep the world's mean temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.30

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if Paris signatories make good on their pledges and meet the 2-degree goal, the result would be a 1.6-foot rise in sea levels by 2100. That would still leave dozens of communities, including Savannah and New Orleans, facing chronic flooding, but it would spare most cities from the worst impacts. By contrast, missing the 2-degree goal opens the door to worse scenarios, with 40 to 60 percent of all oceanfront communities on the East and Gulf coasts facing chronic flooding.31

But reaching the Paris target appears unlikely. Last June, President Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement in 2020. “As president, I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens,” Trump said. “The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.”32

Trump also is undoing an Obama administration rule limiting coal-fired power plants, and he opened thousands of acres of federal lands and offshore areas to fossil-fuel production.33

As the Earth warms, some scientists are hoping technology and ingenuity can reduce cities’ vulnerability. Princeton University glaciologist Michael Wolovick has proposed stabilizing the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica by piling sand and boulders on the seafloor near the glaciers. Such a wall, he said, would prevent warm ocean water from welling up and melting the ice where the glacier meets the sea. If it worked, it could make the ice sheets last as much as 10 times longer than they might otherwise.34

Another idea is to build floating cities that would rise with the sea. A prototype of one vision for “seasteading” is under development in French Polynesia.35 While the idea sounds like science fiction, advocates point to real-world examples of water-borne architecture. In the Netherlands, Amsterdam's new floating IJburg neighborhood features 120 floating houses connected by bridges.36 Likewise, southeast of New Orleans, a high school with a mission of teaching coastal restoration will be built atop a barge.37

But skeptics say these high-tech solutions are no panacea and are expensive. One estimate concluded that constructing a floating platform to house 20 to 30 people would cost some $15 million — less than new construction in Manhattan or London but not an affordable alternative to residences on land in most places. Moreover, floating buildings may not work well on wave-tossed oceans or in areas with high winds, frequent hurricanes or torrential rains. In 2016, a Nigerian school, which was built on a water-borne platform atop plastic barrels, collapsed in heavy rains just seven months after it opened.38

In Miami Beach, city leaders have said they cannot control sea level rise but can delay its worst effects for a while. The city was one of the first in the United States to invest heavily in protective measures. Besides elevating streets to keep them dry and raising seawalls, the city is installing pumps to expel water from low-lying areas and installing devices on stormwater drains that prevent seawater from bubbling up from below. Large increases in stormwater fees are paying for the work, expected to cost as much as $500 million. Surveys showed overwhelming public support for the fee hikes when they first passed in 2014.39

The table shows states that would be most vulnerable to rising sea levels by 2100.  

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Some 2 million coastal homes could be underwater by 2100 if sea levels rise six feet, according to an analysis of federal environmental data by Zillow, a real estate database company. Florida could lose nearly a million homes, one-eighth of its housing stock. New Jersey could lose more than 190,000 homes, 7 percent of its total.

Source: Krishna Rao, “Climate Change and Housing: Will a Rising Tide Sink All Homes?” Zillow, June 2, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/lj4fdad

Data for the graphic are as follows:

State Percentage of Potentially Underwater Housing stock Number of Potentially Underwater Properties Total Value of Potentially Underwater Properties, in billions of dollars
Florida 12.56% 934,411 $413
New Jersey 7.35% 190,429 $93.1
New York 2.10% 96,708 $71
Massachusetts 3.10% 62,069 $51.2
California 0.44% 42,353 $49.2
South Carolina 4.42% 83,833 $45
Hawaii 9.07% 37,556 $25.3
North Carolina 1.64% 57,259 $20.6
Maryland 3.09% 64,299 $19.6
Virginia 1.77% 46,287 $14.4
Washington 1.32% 31,235 $13.7
Louisiana 5.88% 80,080 $13.2

Miami Beach officials, however, said their city can do only so much, because planning beyond 30 years or so into the future is beyond the scope of what present-day leaders can address with the information they have now.

“When you look at sea level rise projections, [steps we're taking] should get us to about 2055 or 2060,” says Susanne Torriente, the chief resilience officer for Miami Beach. “That's when again it will be time to reinvest in infrastructure, whether it's raising roads another foot, or a new technology or something else, for the next generation of engineers and managers.”

Are seawalls and gates a solution to rising seas?

In Rotterdam, a Dutch port city that sits several feet below sea level, a pair of 70-foot high floodgates stand ready to swing out into a vast canal and seal off the North Sea from the city. In the 20 years since it was completed, the Maeslantkering has never been needed to hold back a storm surge. But Rotterdam officials are glad it is there, just in case.40

The Thames River barrier prevents tidal surges from rushing (Getty Images/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Claire Doherty)  
The Thames River barrier prevents tidal surges from rushing upstream toward London. Several other cities also use massive flood barriers. In Rotterdam, 70-foot-high floodgates can seal off the Dutch city from North Sea storm surges. Venice is building a barrier to block the Adriatic Sea. (Getty Images/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Claire Doherty)

Rotterdam is not alone. London is protected by the Thames Barrier, a line of 10 steel gates that emerges from the river floor to prevent tidal surges from rushing upstream toward the city. Since the project was completed in 1982, the gates have been deployed more than 150 times.41 Venice, the Italian city of canals, is building a massive barrier that can rise from the Adriatic Sea floor to prevent high tides and storm surges from inundating its historic plazas.42 And in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the system of seawalls surrounding the city to include a 1.8-mile surge barrier that has been nicknamed the “Great Wall of Louisiana.”43

These projects are attracting notice. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, are studying the feasibility of building a surge barrier across Boston Harbor.44 The idea gained supporters after the January storm that hit during high tide. “Nothing is off the table in terms of what we need to look at,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards.45

In New York City, the Corps is looking at building a retractable system of storm-surge barriers to protect New York Harbor. The biggest section would be a 5-mile floodgate connecting New Jersey's Sandy Hook to New York's Rockaway Peninsula.46

Supporters of such large-scale flood protection say walls and gates can protect coastal cities for generations, at least when it comes to catastrophic storm surges. “The Dutch have used this engineering for decades,” said Robert Yaro, former president of New York's Regional Plan Association. “We in New York are far behind, and among the cities on Earth, we have the most to lose.”47

But New York officials oppose this solution, citing massive construction costs of perhaps $25 billion and a likely completion time of decades. They also are wary of potential harm to marine life and water quality, and say gates could worsen flooding in communities outside the protective zone.48

Jainey Bavishi, the city's director of recovery and resiliency, notes that the gates would need to be open most of the time to allow ships to pass. “It would only offer protection from storm surge,” she says. “We would still need other solutions to protect from sea level rise.”

Another worry with large seawall projects is maintenance. On top of billion-dollar construction costs, it costs millions more to keep them working. And if governments defer maintenance, it could create a dangerous false sense of security, critics of seawalls say. Many people did not evacuate New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina because they believed, incorrectly, that the city's levees would protect them.49

Bavishi says New York is better off pursuing smaller-scale interventions. As the city rebuilds from Sandy, leaders are targeting multipurpose projects that mix flood protection with community amenities. For example, engineers have finished reconstructing the 5.5-mile elevated Rockaway Boardwalk, which will help protect the neighborhood behind it from storm surges and flooding.50

Another project, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, aims to integrate protective berms into a revitalized waterfront park. The $740 million project is scheduled to break ground next year.51 “These coastal protection projects are a chance to re-envision the city waterfront and think about how we integrate coastal protection with all the other uses that are important to us,” Bavishi says.

In South Florida, seawalls are a big topic of conversation, but not of the massive offshore type. Rather, the focus is on the bulkheads and concrete walls lining waterfront communities. Fort Lauderdale alone has more than 200 miles of these barriers, fortifying saltwater canals that earned the city its nickname, the “Venice of America.”

All but five miles of those seawalls are privately owned. With concern about king-tide flooding growing, Fort Lauderdale wanted to find a way to nudge property owners to repair and raise their seawalls — one weak link can lead to the flooding of an entire subdivision. But the work is expensive. A new seawall can cost as much as $1,000 per linear foot. So city officials did not want to force anyone to do it unless tidal flooding was an imminent threat in their neighborhoods, says Nancy Gassman, assistant public works director for the city's Sustainability Division.

In 2016, the city passed a first-of-its kind seawall ordinance that could become a model for other coastal communities. What had previously been the maximum seawall height became the new minimum. And two new citable offenses were created. First, the city now can cite property owners when a seawall is in “disrepair”: If more than half the seawall needs repairs, the owner must bring the entire wall up to code. Second, property owners now can be cited if their leaky walls cause flooding for their neighbors.

Nearby Hollywood Lakes is studying the ordinance. It also is preparing to solicit bids for a seawall on 200 yards of unprotected waterway — a big culprit in king-tide flooding that has been creeping deeper into Alex Sommers’ neighborhood. Sommers, a retired engineer who leads the homeowners association, says tidal floods now reach two blocks closer to his home than they did in 2008. But he says Hollywood Lakes can engineer its way out of its sea level rise problem, at least for a while.

“Building new seawalls and repairing what we have,” he says, “is a good way to protect the city for the next 50 years.”

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Coastal Growth

Long before humans created cities, the coasts exerted a sort of gravitational pull on civilization, first as a source of food. Looking for origins of the city as far back as the Stone Age, urban historian Lewis Mumford noted the appeal of family groups and tribes gathering near estuaries that were “heavily stocked with fish and shellfish.”52

As agriculture developed, many of the great ancient cities sprang up inland, closer to rivers than to seas. But some, such as Alexandria, Athens and Carthage, used their coastal locations to pursue overseas trade and earn great wealth. Centuries later, as advances in shipbuilding made long-distance exploration and trade more feasible, European port cities such as Lisbon blossomed into great commercial capitals with bustling waterfronts.53

As ships from European ports reached the New World, new cities were born, all situated on the coast for commercial and communication purposes. British colonial settlements such as Philadelphia and Boston; Dutch ones such as New Amsterdam; French towns like New Orleans and Mobile; and Spanish ones like St. Augustine all depended on ships as a primary form of transportation and conduit for trade.54

The flow of commerce through coastal cities brought riches — and hardship. For most of U.S. history, urban waterfronts were smelly, disease-ridden places, avoided by anyone who could afford to. Like their modern counterparts, cities also dealt with hurricanes and flooding. In 1804, a hurricane badly damaged Charleston and other towns in South Carolina and Georgia.55

As cities became magnets for factories, textile mills and other industries, urban waterways came to be dumping grounds for waste. Until the advent of sewage treatment systems in the late 1800s, many urban waterways were open sewers.

Starting in the mid- to late-1800s, as the notion of “vacations” took hold and a leisure industry grew, a parallel narrative about waterfronts emerged. At least where industrialization had not befouled the environment, Americans began to associate coastal living with health and warm-weather fun. By 1874, almost 500,000 people a year were riding trains from Philadelphia to a new resort in New Jersey called Atlantic City, where they strolled the boardwalk and visited amusement piers.56

Florida's Atlantic Coast opened to sun-seekers and real estate speculators as the industrialist Henry Flagler built a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West. Most of what now is Miami remained swamp and mangroves until Flagler's rail line reached Biscayne Bay in 1896. In Miami, Flagler also built streets, water and power systems and a resort hotel.57

With coastal development came greater exposure to tropical storms. In 1900, Galveston, Texas, was the nation's third-largest port and “stood on the edge of greatness,” according to author Erik Larson in Isaac's Storm. 58 Then a powerful hurricane washed much of the city away. The storm killed 6,000 to 12,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in American history.59 Afterward, most of Galveston's shipping business, and the wealth derived from it, moved to Houston's more sheltered port 40 miles inland.

By the mid-20th century, the old industrial waterfronts of many U.S. cities went fallow as factories closed and containerized shipping spurred development of new port facilities. While some urban planners saw an opportunity to clear empty warehouses to make way for highways, others called for redeveloping waterfronts for people to enjoy. In 1961, when urban planner Jane Jacobs published her seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she called New York's waterfront a “wasted asset capable of drawing people at leisure.”60

A lot needed to happen to make that possible, however. First, coastal waters had to be cleaned up. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 provided a framework for that by regulating discharge of pollutants into waterways, setting water quality standards and funding construction of sewage treatment plants.61 Boston Harbor, whose filth briefly became a national issue when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988, needed numerous court orders and billions of dollars of investment in sewage treatment plants to become the appealing spot it is today for paddling and fishing.62

Cities also needed to reimagine what their waterfronts could be. In 1980, the developer James Rouse created an early template in Baltimore with Harborplace — a hub of restaurants and shops housed in glass-enclosed pavilions on the dockside. Similar concepts spread to other cities, which began seeking to draw tourists to their waterfronts. Apartments, office buildings, retail and parks followed as coastal cities became attractive places to live and work again in the 21st century. By 2008, the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based group that helps cities with “placemaking,” was touting a global waterfront renaissance as cities turned their river- and ocean-fronts into “great public assets for everyone to use.”63

These days, the pull to be near the ocean is especially strong. More than 123 million Americans, or 39 percent of the U.S. population, live in a coastal shoreline county, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That number has grown by 35 million since 1970, with the most rapid growth by far in Florida.64

“Water has a magnetic power for people,” writes Antonia van der Meer in Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water. Van der Meer meditates on quiet cottages, white-sand beaches and still blue seas. “The beach house is not just a happy place,” she writes. “It is a forever place.”65

Fluctuating Sea Levels

History and science suggest, however, that nothing is forever when it comes to the shoreline. Van der Meer's paradise — along with trillions of dollars’ worth of real estate — exists on a blurry line between land and sea that is always changing.

Throughout history, the seas have risen and fallen substantially during periods of global warming and cooling. Tidal record-keeping over the past 200 years has evolved from direct observation using sticks in the mud to sophisticated radar and GPS systems using satellite imagery.66 But scientists also have mapped out a picture of the more distant past using analyses of fossil coral reefs, coastal sedimentation and other techniques.67

At the peak of the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, sea levels were almost 400 feet lower than today.68 As vast ice sheets covering much of Asia, Europe and North America receded, the seas rose at an average rate of about half an inch per year. But the planet also saw periods of accelerated sea level rise, which scientists call “meltwater pulses,” likely the result of sudden ice-sheet collapse. For example, over a 300-year period 14,000 years ago, scientists believe the global mean sea level rose by about 2 inches per year.69

During the 2,000 years before industrialization, the global sea level was stable. That started to change when humans began burning fossil fuels in vast quantities during the Industrial Revolution. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere in a so-called greenhouse effect. Since 1900, the annual average global surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.70

That warming is what has made the seas rise again, according to climate scientists. From 1901 to 1990, the global mean sea level rose by 4 to 5 inches. Then, the pace hastened, with another 3 inches added since 1990.71 Most of this recent rise is due to thermal expansion — ocean temperatures are rising, too, causing the water to occupy more space.

But what really worries scientists is if continent-size ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica melt. The fear is that water currently stored on land as a solid will end up in the ocean as a liquid. If all of Greenland's ice melted, global sea levels would rise by about 20 feet. If the Antarctic ice melted, sea levels would rise by about 200 feet.72

These fears escalated in 2012, when warm summertime conditions over Greenland produced an ice melt unlike any previously observed. Ice melted even at high elevations deep in Greenland's interior.73

While melting in Greenland and Antarctica can seem quite distant, events closer to home have begun raising public awareness. When levees in New Orleans failed after Hurricane Katrina hit, 80 percent of the city flooded and hundreds of thousands of residents fled. The tragedy killed more than 1,800 people in the region, prompting an intense national debate about whether areas below sea level should be rebuilt. Seven years later, Hurricane Sandy caused $19 billion in damage in New York City alone, destroying coastal neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, inundating subway tunnels and plunging much of Lower Manhattan into a blackout that lasted for days.74

In Florida, no single large disaster has gained the public's attention, but rather the increasingly obvious effects of worsening tidal flooding. “Somewhere around 2010, we started to see these rather large tides coming in and inundating us,” says Steve Adams, director of urban resilience at the environmental advocacy group Institute for Sustainable Communities. “There's been a dramatic change in the last decade. It's gone from people not necessarily noticing it to now, walking around ankle-deep in water or worse, sometimes on a blue-sky day with no rain.”

Government Action

With the climate change threat rising in the latter half of the 20th century, the federal government became more active on the environmental front, although a number of Republicans questioned climate science and others resisted government action out of fear environmental regulations would stunt economic growth.

Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and numerous environmental laws followed, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, which required federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of major government projects.75

By the late 1980s, environmental groups were seeking reductions in fossil fuel use. But critics called scientific evidence for climate change weak and said reducing emissions would hurt the economy by forcing businesses and households to use more expensive low-carbon energy sources.

In 1997, a United Nations convention adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which required developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, on average, by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. It also created programs to slow carbon emission growth in developing countries. By 1999, 84 nations had signed the protocol, including the United States.76

However, U.S. auto and steel manufacturers, oil and gas companies and other industries lobbied against adoption of the treaty, saying it would drive up fuel prices and destroy jobs. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution saying no climate treaty was acceptable that did not require developing countries to reduce their emissions as well. Facing opposition, President Bill Clinton, who had signed the protocol in 1998, never submitted it to the Senate for ratification.77

Little was done on the climate-change front during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush (2001-09), who renounced the Kyoto Protocol. However, climate change gained new attention during Democrat Barack Obama's presidency. “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” Obama declared in his 2013 inaugural address. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”78

In 2015, Obama signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to take climate change and sea level rise into account when building or reconstructing infrastructure.79 Environmentalists such as Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, and insurance leaders such as Franklin Nutter of the Reinsurance Association of America praised the move as a “commonsense step” that would “better prepare the country for the threat of future storms.”80

But President Trump rolled back the order last August as part of an effort to speed up permitting for infrastructure projects, saying it takes too long to get things built because of environmental impact studies. The National Association of Home Builders commended Trump for rescinding “an overreaching environmental rule that needlessly hurt housing affordability.” Trump also has been weakening or repealing numerous other environmental regulations, including those governing the coal and oil industries, in an effort to boost production.81

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Current Situation

Regional Efforts

With the Trump administration questioning climate change and encouraging fossil fuel use, states and local governments are taking steps to prepare for sea level rise.

In South Florida, four counties — Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe (the Florida Keys) — have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. A number of experts hailed the compact as a national model for forging regional action, both in terms of reducing local greenhouse-gas emissions and in preparing for the inevitable effects of climate change.

Sea level rise is one of the compact's top issues. Working with scientists from universities in the area, the four counties agreed on a unified projection of how much sea levels would likely rise in the region — that way, each county is working from the same set of assumptions. Those projections are updated every five years, along with a regional climate action plan that includes policy recommendations for local governments and best practices from across the four-county area.82

“This is a region of 6 million people, four counties and 108 cities,” says Adams of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, who helped found the compact. “They recognize that if they continue to take individualized actions, you can get into a ‘beggar-thy-neighbor’ situation very quickly when you're talking about a shared coastline.”

Adams adds that the compact keeps action moving even as local politicians come and go — crucial on an issue that demands long-term focus. “There has been a good bit of continuity in political direction,” he says. “And it's bipartisan. I have two Republican mayors of these four counties.”

Cities and counties around Florida are mobilizing to put sea level rise on the agenda in the state capital. In 2016, they founded Resiliency Florida to begin raising visibility of the issue. “One of our first goals was to elevate the discussion in Tallahassee,” says Pepper Uchino, the group's leader. “Nobody was talking about it in a unified way.”

Uchino says the effort may be starting to pay off. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget request for 2018–19 includes $3.6 million for coastal resiliency projects. The funding request also uses the phrase “sea level rise” in its justification. The Scott administration reportedly had banned state agencies from using terms such as “climate change” and “sea level rise” in its documents.83

Elsewhere, state governments are playing a more active role on sea level rise. In Massachusetts, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker recently issued two executive orders seen as critical first steps to tackling the problem. One directed state agencies to create an “integrated climate change strategy for the Commonwealth,” including a statewide plan to address climate-change effects such as sea level rise. Another began a grant program for municipalities to identify their climate change vulnerabilities and develop plans to address them.84

In California, the state Coastal Commission has published comprehensive guidance for local governments to incorporate sea level rise into planning efforts and offers grants to local governments to do the work. Oceanside, about 40 miles north of San Diego, received a $200,000 grant.85 According to city planner Cunningham, “The funding they provided to us and other coastal jurisdictions is to encourage us to robustly address sea level rise.”

Philanthropic support supplements the state funding in California. A $4.6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation is bankrolling a competition to find ways to prepare the San Francisco Bay Area for sea level rise. Ten multidisciplinary teams of designers, architects, urban planners, engineers and resilience experts are working on designs for waterfront sites in San Francisco, Oakland, North Richmond and other cities. When final designs are released in May, they are expected to spark a conversation about how to handle sea level rise not only in the Bay Area but around the country.86

In Charleston, S.C., officials are implementing a wide-ranging program adopted in 2016 to protect the historic coastal city from sea level rise. “In the 1970s Charleston experienced an average of 2 days of tidal flooding per year,” then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. wrote in 2015, “and it is projected that the city could experience 180 days of tidal flooding in 2045.”

Like other communities, Charleston is studying its zoning codes and the ways regulatory changes could promote development while minimizing the dangers of sea level rise. The 2016 plan also is encouraging “best practices for hard and landscape features that absorb, sustain, cleanse and release water.”87

Federal Hurdles

Scientists, local officials and others warning of sea level rise say the federal government could be doing more to help.

A key problem, they say, is the National Flood Insurance Program. Introduced 50 years ago to offer insurance that private insurers deemed too risky to sell, the program has encouraged homeowners to build — and repeatedly rebuild — in flood-prone areas. Many policyholders pay artificially low rates that do not reflect their actual risk. A recent Congressional Budget Office report found that the program brings in about $1.4 billion less than it spends — and that was before the 2017 hurricane season put the program even deeper in the red.88

Fixing the program is proving to be politically difficult, however. In 2012, Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Insurance Reform Act to begin phasing out subsidies and make other changes to the program. But when rates spiked, homeowners and real estate agents complained, and Congress undid many of the reforms. Although Congress on Feb. 9 agreed to extend the flood insurance program until March 23, it is still debating possible changes. The House passed a bill last summer addressing some of the program's problems, such as updating outdated flood maps, but Congress has not agreed to a final plan.89

Federal disaster assistance is also ripe for reform, experts say. It is much easier for states and local governments to get federal dollars after a disaster as part of the cleanup effort than it is to get help mitigating disaster risk beforehand, says Torriente, the chief resilience officer in Miami Beach. “Can we turn the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funding model upside down and get dollars ahead of the storm?” she asks.

Melting ice dots the shore on Greenland's Nares Strait (Getty Images/DeAgostini/M. Santini)  
Melting ice dots the shore on Greenland's Nares Strait. Scientists say the vast ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica have been shrinking since 2002, with the biggest losses occurring in Greenland. If both were to melt entirely – the most extreme global warming scenario — enough water would be produced to cause 220 feet of global sea level rise. (Getty Images/DeAgostini/M. Santini)

New research supports Torriente's plea. In January, the National Institute of Building Sciences — a nongovernmental organization that supports advances in building practices — released a study of 23 years’ worth of disaster mitigation grants provided by federal agencies. It found that every dollar spent on hazard mitigation before a disaster can save $6 spent recovering from the disaster afterward.90

Indeed, after the horrific hurricane season of 2017, FEMA Administrator Brock Long appeared to have reached the same conclusion. In October remarks to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Long said it is time to change the section of the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act that deals with disaster mitigation.

“The problem with the way the system is established is you have to get hit” with a disaster before a community qualifies for funding to prevent damage, Long said. “On average, I believe we put out $700 million or $800 million in post-disaster mitigation funding. Why are we not doing that on the front side?”91

Critics also want the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a comprehensive strategy for defending cities from sea level rise, instead of building levees and replenishing beaches in piecemeal fashion.

“We need to figure out how to institutionalize the Army Corps of Engineers and their capacity to think about coastal resilience planning in an integrated way all along the seaboard,” says John Cleveland, head of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a nonprofit that promotes local climate action. “They're doing it project by project…. It's not a national coastal protection strategy.”

Funding Needs

To help pay for the expensive investments needed to protect the coasts from sea level rise, coastal cities should join one another in lobbying for more federal funding, says James Cason, former mayor of Coral Gables.

“Cities can't do it themselves,” he says. “We need Washington to consider this a national problem, because the national economy will suffer if we lose our ports. If you're in Kansas and you say, ‘It's not my problem’ — it certainly is. Where are you going to export your wheat from? It's going to go through a port.”

But despite the budget deal passed by Congress on Feb. 9 that will raise domestic spending 10 percent, analysts say the Trump administration and most congressional Republicans remain hostile to climate change initiatives. In the near future, cities’ chances of getting big infusions of federal cash to deal with sea level rise are slim as a result. In its budget outline for fiscal 2018, the Trump administration called for balancing the federal budget within 10 years by cutting spending by $3.6 trillion over that span.

“Deficit spending has become an ingrained part of the culture in the Nation's capital,” according to the budget plan. “It must end to avoid passing unsustainable levels of debt on to our children and grandchildren and causing serious economic damage.”92

The administration's fiscal 2019 budget proposal released Feb. 12 calls for slashing spending on climate change research and climate mitigation efforts. The administration also wants to cut NOAA's budget by 20 percent and to eliminate $273 million in climate-related grants, such as the coastal zone management grants.93

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Weighing Public Opinion

Experts studying sea level rise will be keeping one eye on polar ice and the other on public opinion.

The question of how fast the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt will define how quickly the seas rise over the coming decades — and how much time cities have to react. Researchers are still trying to understand how complex dynamics play out in some of the most remote corners of the planet. For example, researchers in Greenland recently found that meltwater may flow back into holes in the ice instead of draining out into the ocean. The findings could mean that some sea level projections are too high. More research, scientists say, will be needed.94

At the same time, observers note, public opinion will influence how urgently government responds to sea level and climate change problems. According to a 2016 survey by a research group, 69 percent of Americans believe that climate change is happening, but only 38 percent believe it will harm them personally.95

Many observers say the latter number will rise as more Americans are affected by severe storms, “100-year” floods, drought, wildfires and other “rare” events that are occurring with greater frequency.

“That question — do you believe it affects you personally — that's going to look dramatically different in the future,” says Uchino of Resiliency Florida. “All politics is local. When people start seeing that climate change has real impacts on them, then they are going to hue and cry for government to respond.”

Scientists say nations still have time to thwart the most catastrophic effects of climate change. But it will demand determined global action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as envisioned under the Paris Agreement. “I'm always optimistic,” says Caldas of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “I don't know if we can keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but I think we can still shoot for 2.”

Meanwhile, forward-looking cities will be ramping up their adaptation efforts, says Cleveland of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission. Cities that have not yet taken stock of their vulnerabilities will need to do so. “Resilience planning has to become like fire and water and police protection,” he says. “It has to become a fundamental function in coastal cities.”

Cleveland says cities can create a virtuous cycle with sea level rise, or they can fall prey to a vicious one. “In the virtuous cycle, you get ahead of your problems and start to plan and put good adaptive management in place,” he says. “You don't make big bets you could regret. You make incremental investments in flood protection, people gain confidence, and it feeds on itself.” Cleveland says the climate planning that Boston is doing has started the city down this path.

“The other way is to play musical chairs [and] assume you'll get a chair when the music stops — you'll sell before values drop,” Cleveland says. “The city doesn't invest, and then starts flooding, and people leave as insurance companies crank up the rates or drop coverage. Then property values drop and property taxes drop so the resources to invest in resilience are even more difficult to come by, and you have this chaotic process of economic loss and abandonment.

“They're both really possible outcomes.”

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Should coastal development be restricted due to rising seas?


Rob Young
Director, Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, Western Carolina University; Andy Coburn, Associate Director. Written for CQ Researcher, February 2018

The global sea level is rising at a rate of just over one-eighth of an inch per year. That may not sound like a lot, but the trend will not be reversed anytime soon. The bottom line: All coastal flooding and erosion we are seeing today will only get worse. The only question is: How fast?

Oceanfront investment property rims the coast from Maine to Texas — typically vacation homes operated as rental businesses or second homes purchased as investments.

These properties represent one of the most heavily subsidized and distorted markets in the United States. Taxpayers spend billions of dollars at the local, state and federal levels to preserve shorelines, rebuild infrastructure after storms and underwrite property insurance that is not actuarially sound. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New Jersey taxpayers spent $500 million rebuilding beaches that an Army Corps of Engineers analysis showed primarily benefited buildings on the oceanfront.

A 2014 report by the National Academies concluded that we have no national vision for how federal dollars should be spent to deal with coastal hazards and coastal risk. Everyone agrees the National Flood Insurance Program needs reform, but no property owner wants to pay real market rates for flood insurance. Congress fails to act, and after every additional storm taxpayer dollars are poured into rebuilding areas that will flood again.

We have always believed that the solution to better coastal management is to stop the public sector from creating this moral hazard that encourages and supports investment in areas clearly exposed to storms and sea level rise.

Simply put, get the public dollars off the shore and let market forces determine the risk. Shore-protection projects should be funded locally, and these coastal economies should be able to pay for the rebuilding themselves. Then we can see what the real value of an oceanfront home is.

Until this happens, the only way to limit taxpayer exposure to the damage caused by coastal storms and sea level rise is to encourage states and localities to limit development in areas of known exposure. This is a less preferable option because it raises the specter of restrictions on private property rights and market interference.

But lacking real reform in how we subsidize coastal development and investment, regulation becomes the only alternative to protect taxpayer interests.


Nicolas Loris
Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy, Heritage Foundation. Written for CQ Researcher, February 2018

For years we have been bombarded with predictions of imminent, catastrophic sea level rise. Observed reality refutes those predictions.

Yes, global sea levels are rising. They have been doing that since the last Ice Age, for about two centuries. The rate at which they are rising now is nothing extraordinary.

Although man-made global warming is often blamed, seas can rise for a number of reasons. Natural climate factors certainly play a role. And people can affect sea levels in much more impactful ways than through their carbon footprint — by river re-engineering or through energy extraction activities, for example.

Whatever the cause, the current rate of global sea level rise — estimated at approximately .12 of an inch per year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — falls far short of the alarmists’ heavily publicized projections. Consider the 20-foot rise forecast by 2100 in Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth.” It appears to be off by a factor of 10.

Rather than restrict coastal development, policymakers should rely on market mechanisms to manage risks to all of the United States’ coastal economic activities. Professional risk assessors should be able to rely on objective, transparent science and establish the necessary insurance for coastal development.

The government-monopolized National Flood Insurance Program fails to keep up with current risk assessments. Because taxpayers subsidize the program, property owners do not bear the full cost. With taxpayers shouldering much of the risk, chancy projects look more doable.

If developers had to pay fair market price for flood insurance, they would certainly think twice before building that new hotel right on the beach.

Private insurers can evaluate the risk and costs of flooding and set premiums accordingly. Higher premiums will provide incentives for homeowners and businesses to invest in flood-mitigation planning and preparedness.

Another cost-effective solution is local spending on adaptation efforts. For instance, the California Coastal Commission and cities such as Miami have invested in seawall construction to protect against rising seas and extreme weather events.

Government-imposed restrictions on coastal development would follow the “we know what's best” mentality that often plagues policymakers and regulators. Congress should ultimately eliminate the giveaways that entrench the government's flood insurance monopoly and empower the market to determine how America's coastlines are developed.

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1870s–1930sCoastal development accelerates.
1874Vacationers from Philadelphia flock to a new oceanside resort in New Jersey, Atlantic City.
1880sAs industrialization spreads, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises, creating a “greenhouse effect” that causes temperatures to rise.
1900In the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a hurricane strikes Galveston, Texas, killing more than 6,000.
1912A railway built by industrialist Henry Flagler opens Florida's eastern coast to development.
1936Flood Control Act authorizes hundreds of flood-control projects.
1960s–1990sEfforts to protect and clean the shore intensify.
1960Florida's population reaches 5 million, spurring coastal development and increasing the state's vulnerability to sea level rise.
1961Urban planner Jane Jacobs helps launch the revitalization of American waterfronts with her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
1965After Hurricane Betsy strikes, Congress orders the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild levees to protect New Orleans.
1968National Flood Insurance Act provides insurance to property owners in communities that take steps to prevent flood damage.
1972Clean Water Act creates a framework for cleaning up urban waterfronts.
1981NASA predicts global warming of “almost unprecedented magnitude” over the next century.
1988Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act provides a framework for federal aid to reach states after a disaster. Critics say the law doesn't do enough to encourage disaster planning.
1993Global mean sea level stands 4 to 5 inches above the 1900 level.
2000–PresentConcerns over sea level rise grow.
2005Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast, killing 1,833 and flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. A national discussion follows about whether parts of the city below sea level should be rebuilt.
2012Warming in Greenland produces unprecedented ice melting…. Hurricane Sandy hits New York and New Jersey, killing more than 100 and causing $65 billion in damage…. Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act requires phasing out most discounted insurance premiums and eliminating coverage for properties repeatedly flooded.
2014After widespread complaints about the Biggert-Waters Act, Congress undoes most of its provisions…. Miami Beach approves stormwater fee increase to pay for $500 million in work elevating streets and raising seawalls to counter sea level rise.
2015President Obama signs executive order requiring federal agencies to take sea level rise into account when building or reconstructing infrastructure…. Paris Agreement on climate change pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
2017President Trump announces his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement…. Trump rolls back Obama's executive order on sea level rise…. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria pummel the U.S., renewing fears about flooding and sea level rise…. Republican Gov. Rick Scott requests $3.6 million to help Florida communities prepare for sea level rise…. Massachusetts awards grants to municipalities to identify their climate change vulnerabilities.
2018Officials in Monroe County, in the Florida Keys, announce they will start accepting design proposals for elevating the lowest, most flood-prone roads in the Twin Lakes community of Key Largo and the Sands neighborhood of Big Pine Key…. Trump administration releases a budget targeting climate science and renewable-energy research for cuts.

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Short Features

“We can't just keep building higher levees.”

Coastal cities facing rising sea levels can take comfort — and caution — in the example of the Netherlands. The low-lying country in northwest Europe, a quarter of which sits below sea level, has been holding back the North Sea for centuries.

The Dutch began building dikes 1,000 years ago, and later added windmills to pump out water behind the dikes to create suitable farmland. This engineering feat is why the Dutch have a saying: “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

However, Dutch history includes tragic dike failures and catastrophic flooding, such as the calamity still simply called “the disaster.” A winter storm with hurricane-force winds swept in from the North Sea on Feb. 1, 1953, just as higher-than-normal tides were cresting. Dikes across the southwestern part of the country collapsed, and icy waters poured into towns and villages while people slept, killing more than 1,800.1

That flood led to a national commitment to prevent a recurrence. Through the 40-year, $11 billion Delta Works Project, the Netherlands built dams, locks and lakes to protect vulnerable coastal lands. A storm surge barrier known as the Maeslantkering was constructed downstream from Rotterdam, and can be quickly closed if another North Sea storm threatens the city. The country also has an impressive array of defenses against river flooding.2

In short, flood protection is a national cause, a source of solidarity and a major export business for the Netherlands. Even King Willem-Alexander was active in national and global water management programs before ascending to the throne in 2013.3 While the Dutch may debate the benefits of various flood-control strategies, they all understand the need for a strong system of water management.

In 1798, the Dutch parliament created a powerful nationwide organization known as Rijkswaterstaat to manage large-scale flood defenses.4 Below that is a robust local water governance system that dates to the 13th century, when farmers formed “polder boards,” or water boards, to build dikes, drain swamps and manage the finances.5 It was one of the earliest forms of participatory democracy.6 The boards have evolved and merged since then but remain essential jurisdictions within the Dutch political system, with elected leaders and taxing authority.

The Oosterschelde Dam protects the Zeeland (Getty Images/Corbis/Nathan Benn)  
The Oosterschelde Dam protects the Zeeland region of the Netherlands against North Sea flooding. Dams, locks and lakes are part of a vast system protecting the low-lying nation. (Getty Images/Corbis/Nathan Benn)

“There's a precise system to calculate how much every single person has to pay, depending on the amount of interest they have in water management,” says Piet Dircke, global leader of water management for the Dutch engineering and design firm Arcadis. While the Netherlands’ global reputation for water engineering has produced the impression that technology is the secret of their success, he says, “that's not the truth. It's also the way we have organized ourselves. The technology comes from being well organized and well funded.”

The Dutch approach to water management continues to evolve, with a growing sense that hardened defenses such as seawalls are not the only solution. In one experiment, engineers deposited a massive pile of sand on a North Sea beach, in hopes that natural currents would move the sand along the coast and continuously nourish other beaches. A study of the “sand engine” approach found that sediment is indeed being transported, dunes are forming and seals have begun visiting them. Another “Building With Nature” approach creates coastal salt marshes, willow forests and other natural features that can help dissipate wave action and delay the need to raise or rebuild dikes.7

Today the Dutch increasingly are seeking ways to co-exist with water rather than fight it. In Rotterdam, parts of which sit more than 15 feet below sea level, parks are being designed as bowls that can fill up during heavy rains — and be pumped out later — to relieve pressure on rivers and dike systems. Elsewhere, riverbeds are being widened. Such strategies are known as “Living With Water” and creating “Room for the Rivers.”

“We can't just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” Harold van Waveren, a senior government adviser, told The New York Times. 8

The Netherlands is not immune to the challenges of sea-level rise due to climate change. But Jan H. de Jager, a civil engineer and expert on dikes and dams, told Metropolis magazine that he thinks his country has the know-how, governance systems and political consensus to handle what scientists currently project as the worst-case scenarios in 2100.9

“I think two meters we can manage,” he said. “We pump more sand and, in places that are most vulnerable and you cannot pump, you build hard structures like dikes or barriers…. If the storm-surge barrier [protecting Rotterdam] became too low in 50 years’ time, we'd probably build a new one.”10

— Christopher Swope

[1] “The Netherlands remembers the devastating floods of 1953,” DutchNews.nl, Feb. 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybfu4sla.

[2] Pier Vellinga and Jeroen Aerts, “Lessons Learned from the North Sea Flooding Disaster in the Netherlands, 1953,” in Sarah Boulter et al., eds., Natural Disasters and Adaptation to Climate Change (2013), p. 41.

[3] “Willem-Alexander says goodbye as ‘water prince,’” Trouw, March 21, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/y96k6a22.

[4] “Water Management in the Netherlands,” Rijkswaterstaat, Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, February 2011, https://tinyurl.com/ycakzeev.

[5] Frank van Schoubroeck and Harm Kool, “The remarkable history of polder systems in The Netherlands,” U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Feb. 18, 2010, https://tinyurl.com/ya48n4eo.

[6] Michael Wintle, An Economic and Social History of the Netherlands, 1800-1920 (2000).

[7] Huib de Vriend, Stefan Aarninkhof and Mark van Koningsveld, “‘Building with nature’: The new Dutch approach to coastal and river works,” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers — Civil Engineering, February 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y9cku394.

[8] Michael Kimmelman, “The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. The World Is Watching,” The New York Times, June 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y79ywjn4.

[9] Martin Pedersen, “Q&A: A Brief History of Dutch Dikes and Polders,” Metropolis, Feb. 16, 2010, https://tinyurl.com/yct79oas.

[10] Ibid.

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“We'll need to see some innovation in how we meet these pressing needs.”

Nine years ago, Steve Adams and government officials from Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. The compact is hailed as a national model for coordinating local efforts to combat sea level rise. CQ Researcher freelance correspondent Christopher Swope interviewed Adams, director of urban resilience at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an environmental advocacy group, about the compact's work. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the compact about?

The four-county compact is a model for how to work at the metro or regional scale in dealing with climate change issues. Urban climate policy often puts an implicit fence around individual jurisdictions at the city scale. This is a region of 6 million people, four counties and 108 cities. They recognize that if they continue to take individualized actions, you can get into a “beggar-thy-neighbor” situation very quickly when you're talking about a shared coastline.

What are the benefits of that collaboration?

Ten years ago, you had individual adjoining jurisdictions developing their own sea level rise strategies. Guess what? They didn't match. They were each projecting for a different kind of future. The compact has focused on working at the regional scale to develop a unified set of sea level rise projections and other kinds of planning assumptions that local governments can then take and work with consistently.

It has used its convening power to build the capacity of individual municipalities. There are a lot of smaller municipalities here that can free-ride on the expertise of the larger cities. It's often individual cities that have to change a policy, change an ordinance, adopt a plan. We hear time and time again, “Give me a template. Give me a model ordinance. How do I actually get this done in my city?”

Does the compact help with political continuity? Sea level rise is a long-term issue that requires thinking beyond election cycles.

One of the challenges is the dilemma of the strong-mayor cities. You see some wonderful leadership by elected officials who come in for their period of time and really move things along. Then, at the end of that term, somebody else comes in. They have a different set of priorities. In this region, many of the elected officials who founded this process are gone, and many other elected officials have come into office. But the regional process has been in place, and there has been a good bit of continuity in political direction. And it's bipartisan. I have two Republican mayors of these four counties.

Steve Adams, director of urban resilience at the Institute for Sustainable Communities (Courtesy Steve Adams)  
Steve Adams, director of urban resilience at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, says a four-county Florida compact is a national model for dealing with climate change. (Courtesy Steve Adams)

What actions do you see local governments taking?

There's been a ton of work that only bureaucrats can love: updates to comprehensive growth management plans, to policies and guidance documents, adjustments to capital budgeting processes. It's just some real fundamental nuts-and-bolts changes to begin to thread climate considerations into the regular business of government.

The more publicly apparent actions include everything from installing new devices on storm-water drains to manage backflow, to seawall ordinances, to experimentation with living shoreline areas. Miami-Dade County is pursuing a large sewerage upgrade and had made a lot of decisions based on sea level rise.

Should local governments do more to stop new coastal development that is in harm's way?

That's a tough issue. You're seeing a lot of normal urban economics continuing to happen. You see deals where initial investors are making their money back in the first five years after a project has been constructed. It's not just local or even national capital here. You have Chinese money flowing in. You have Latin American money. You have folks willing to make an investment in parcels that may or may not have a useful economic life many decades down the road, but it certainly can generate enough revenue to cover their investment within a reasonable period. It's hard to say if it's good or bad. It's more like: What's the calculus? There's a lot we can do from a regulatory perspective and from an infrastructure and community investment perspective to prolong the life of some of these assets.

When did sea level rise get on the political agenda in South Florida?

Ten years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist was in office as a Republican and was leading statewide efforts. As he concluded his term, there really was this vacuum in leadership, and these four counties stepped into that.

What will the general tone be 10 years from now?

Many elements of the conversation we're having today will remain consistent. In 10 years, you'll continue to see a vibrant region working hard on the issues. There are going to be many more cities really deeply engaging.

I think you'll also see greater engagement by the private sector and more public-private partnerships. [Money is not coming from] the federal treasury. So we'll need to see some innovation in how to mobilize private capital to meet these pressing needs.

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Goodell, Jeff , The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World , Little, Brown and Company, 2017. A journalist who has written extensively about climate change details the consequences of failing to prepare for rising sea levels.

Shennan, Ian, Anthony J. Long and Benjamin P. Horton , eds., Handbook of Sea-Level Research , Wiley, 2015. Three environmental scientists provide a guide to help scientists, teachers and policymakers understand rising sea levels and the science, economics and politics that surround the debate over them.


Allen, Greg , “South Florida Real Estate Boom Not Dampened By Sea Level Rise,” NPR, Dec. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y76pkpy3. A journalist finds that developers were undeterred about buying property in Miami's Brickell neighborhood two months after the area flooded during Hurricane Irma.

Baptiste, Nathalie, and Mark Helenowski , “Humans Used to Live here. Then Sandy Happened. Now It Is Being Reclaimed by Nature,” Mother Jones, Oct. 27, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9gx9n7f. A reporter and a documentary filmmaker examine the costs, benefits and difficulties of buyout programs aimed at persuading people to abandon vulnerable coastal homes.

Kimmelman, Michael , “The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. The World Is Watching,” The New York Times, June 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y79ywjn4. The architecture critic for The New York Times examines Rotterdam's innovative approaches to sea level rise, including the city's storm surge barrier, as well as more natural solutions for living with water.

Lesser, Benjamin, and Ryan McNeill , “Special Report-Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs,” Reuters, Dec. 12, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yd5ujd8v. A Reuters investigation finds that weak enforcement of rules barring home construction in floodplains costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars.

McGeehan, Patrick, and Winnie Hu , “Five Years After Sandy, Are We Better Prepared?” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybzxr7xo. Reporters find that in the wake of a devastating hurricane, New York City is better prepared for future storms but continues to allow development close to the water.

Reports and Studies

“Interpretive Guidelines for Addressing Sea Level Rise in Local Coastal Programs and Coastal Development Permits,” California Coastal Commission: Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance, Aug. 12, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/yb72ff4y. The commission seeks to guide state and local coastal management officials in California on how to deal with rising sea levels.

“Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report,” National Institute of Building Sciences, December 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybddwph8. An organization that provides advice on using building technology says every dollar spent on hazard mitigation grants saves taxpayers six dollars in responding to disasters, including those related to rising seas.

“Welcome to RCAP 2.0: Regional Climate Action Plan,” Southeast Florida Regional Compact: Climate Change, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yaf5hk5f. This plan by four South Florida counties is considered a national model for addressing climate change and rising sea levels.

Spanger-Siegfried, Erika , et al., “When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7tomfuo. An organization of scientists and engineers that works to solve global problems looks at the tough decisions that low-lying coastal areas in the United States will face because of rising sea levels.

Sweet, William V. , et al., “Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2017, https://tinyurl.com/zvn25ua. U.S. government scientists say the effects of rising sea levels will be most severe along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to the western Gulf of Mexico.

Walsh, Mayor Martin J. , et al., “Climate Ready Boston: Executive Summary,” December 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y6ubb76g. Officials in Boston assess the city's exposure to sea level rise and detail their planned response.

Wuebbles, Donald J. , et al., “Chapter 12: Sea Level Rise,” Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), Volume I, U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycobeu8k. A group created by Congress to expand global understanding of climate change assesses the state of science relating to rising sea levels.

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The Next Step

Federal Policy

Dennis, Brady, Juliet Eilperin and Chris Mooney , “Trump administration releases report finding ‘no convincing alternative explanation’ for climate change,” The Washington Post, Nov. 3, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y97tgt3q. The U.S. government's latest National Climate Assessment says human activity is the primary cause of rising seas and other consequences of climate change, a finding that contradicts the Trump administration's agenda on global warming.

Friedman, Lisa , “Trump Signs Order Rolling Back Environmental Rules on Infrastructure,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybjtwsox. President Trump eliminated an Obama-era regulation that took sea level rises into account when building infrastructure as part of an effort to ramp up construction projects.

Joyce, Christopher , “Mapping Coastal Flood Risk Lags Behind Sea Level Rise,” NPR, July 27, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9dpu3x7. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps are outdated and do not account for rising sea levels, prompting some communities to draw their own flood maps.

Floating Cities

Cosgrave, Ellie , “The future of floating cities — and the realities,” BBC, Nov. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb9a7qqu. Instead of trying to protect coastal cities from rising seas, “aquapreneurs” and “seavangelists” advise building floating cities on the ocean.

Gelles, David , “Floating Cities, No Longer Science Fiction, Begin to Take Shape,” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb8xldnr. The Seasteading Institute in San Francisco wants to build a prototype of a self-sustaining floating village — complete with homes, hotels, offices and restaurants — in French Polynesia by 2020.


Leslie, Jacques , “California faces a cascade of catastrophes as sea level rises,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 24, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y88hffk4. California's railways, airports, chemical waste sites and other infrastructure are not equipped to handle rising sea levels, according to an author and journalist who has written about water resources management and climate change.

Simon, Matt , “Sea Level Rise Will Imperil Humanity's Future and Its Past,” Wired, Nov. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y94zofo9. Rising sea levels threaten not only property and infrastructure in the United States but also thousands of historically important archaeological sites.

Tabuchi, Hiroko , et al., “Floods Are Getting Worse, and 2,500 Chemical Sites Lie in the Water's Path,” The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8otaqca. Rising sea levels and flooding from intense rainfall caused by climate change threaten thousands of chemical sites across the United States.

Local Municipalities

Harris, Alex , “Keys to raise roads before climate change puts them underwater. It'll be expensive,” Miami Herald, Feb. 2, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya6mwz4r. Officials in Key Largo, Fla., are moving ahead with expensive plans to raise a flood-prone road, the first road project in the Keys designed specifically to avoid the consequences of rising sea levels.

O'Brien, John , “Exxon Prepares To Sue California Cities, Says They Contradict Themselves On Climate Change,” Forbes, Jan. 8, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybj2bpul. Exxon is fighting back against lawsuits filed by local officials in California that blame Exxon and other energy companies for greenhouse emissions that the officials link to rising seas.

Ruggeri, Amanda , “Miami's Fight Against Rising Seas,” BBC, April 4, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/mqmz7xg. Communities in South Florida that routinely flood because of rising seas are using a variety of strategies to deal with the problem, such as raising roadways, adding floodgates, installing tidal valves and improving sea walls.

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Climate Central
1 Palmer Square, Suite 330, Princeton, NJ 08542
Independent organization of scientists and journalists that researches sea level rise and its effects.

Georgetown Climate Center
Hall of States, Suite 422, 444 N. Capitol St., Washington, DC 20001
A nonpartisan group that works to advance policies that address rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

NASA Sea Level Change
300 E St., S.W., Washington, DC 20546
Research and analysis from the federal agency that uses satellites to track sea level rise and other climate conditions.

National Ocean Service
1305 East West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agency that helps coastal communities prepare for, respond to and recover from storm surges and tidal flooding.

c/o First Street Foundation, 247 Water St., Suite 401, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Promotes awareness of sea level rise and impacts across the United States, with information specific to Florida and Virginia.

Southeast Florida Regional Compact: Climate Change
c/o Institute for Sustainable Communities, 535 Stone Cutters Way, Montpelier, VT 05602
A collaboration of four South Florida counties that is considered a national model for regional planning on climate impacts and sea level rise.

Union of Concerned Scientists
2 Brattle Square, Cambridge, MA 02138-3780
A science advocacy group that researches solutions to global problems, including climate change and sea level rise.

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[1] Stephen Hobbs, “Hurricane Irma storm surges hit South Florida,” Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 10, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9zjmju2.

[2] “King Tides and Climate Change,” Environmental Protection Agency, https://tinyurl.com/gtcg6nl.

[3] Jerry Iannelli, “Miami Mayor: City Flooding ‘Like a Hurricane’ Again Today Thanks to King Tides,” Miami New Times, Oct. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7hhqj4l.

[4] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, “Extreme hurricanes and wildfires made 2017 the most costly U.S. disaster year on record,” The Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y87h6gq7.

[5] Katharine Hayhoe, speech given at the 9th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, December 14, 2017. For more on the summit, see https://tinyurl.com/yajedkwb.

[6] Stephane Hallegatte et al., “Future flood losses in major coastal cities,” Nature Climate Change, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/ycx6dkco.

[7] “Quick Facts on Ice Sheets,” National Snow and Ice Data Center, https://tinyurl.com/qg4mu8n.

[8] W.V. Sweet et al., “2017: Sea level rise,” in Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, https://tinyurl.com/y88kn7bq.

[9] Chris Mooney, “Why the U.S. East Coast could be a major ‘hotspot’ for rising seas,” The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y8j8fz3g; Madison Margolin, “How fast is New Orleans sinking? Faster and faster, says new study,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yd3gbhj8.

[10] Sweet, op. cit.

[11] Erika Spanger-Siegfried et al., “When Rising Seas Hit Home: Hard Choices Ahead for Hundreds of US Coastal Communities,” Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7tomfuo.

[12] Sweet, op. cit.

[13] Greg Allen, “South Florida Real Estate Boom Not Dampened By Sea Level Rise,” NPR, Dec. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y76pkpy3.

[14] Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (2017), pp. 92–93.

[15] Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, “How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science,” The New York Times, June 3, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9u3ptgf.

[16] Stuart Leavenworth, “Real estate industry blocks sea-level warnings that could crimp profits on coastal properties,” McClatchy, Sept. 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7njye5a.

[17] Allen, op. cit.

[18] “Moody's: Climate change is forecast to heighten US exposure to economic loss, placing short- and long-term credit pressure on US states and local governments,” Moody's Investors Service, Nov. 28, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yddknysl.

[19] Russell Gold, “Boston Agonizes Over How to Protect Itself From Future Storms,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 28, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8qjr3dn.

[20] Daniel Stander, remarks at the 9th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, Dec. 14, 2017.

[21] Mark Arsenault and John R. Ellement, “Roads, cars submerged: Storm raged with snow, floods,” The Boston Globe, Jan. 4, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaeeqatx.

[22] “Climate Ready Boston,” City of Boston, December 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y6ubb76g.

[23] “Imagine Boston 2030,” City of Boston July 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yd2onnnb.

[24] Patrick McGeehan and Winnie Hu, “Five Years After Sandy, Are We Better Prepared?” The New York Times, Oct. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybzxr7xo.

[25] Debbie Orshefsky, remarks at the 9th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit, Dec. 14, 2017.

[26] Benjamin Lesser and Ryan McNeill, “Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs,” Reuters, Dec. 12, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yd5ujd8v.

[27] Wayne Parry, “New Jersey coast to get disputed, long-delayed sand dunes,” The Associated Press, Oct. 1, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yaa2u67m.

[28] Nathalie Baptiste and Mark Helenowski, “Humans Used to Live Here. Then Sandy Happened. Now It Is Being Reclaimed by Nature,” Mother Jones, Oct. 27, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9gx9n7f.

[29] Stander, op. cit.

[30] Gregory Scruggs, “Explainer: What is the Paris Agreement on climate change and what does it mean for cities?” Citiscope, March 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/n8okr5k.

[31] Spanger-Siegfried et al., op. cit.

[32] “Statement of President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord,” The White House, June 1, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yazkrs3d.

[33] Alex Guillén and Eric Wolff, “5 big things Trump is doing to reverse Obama's climate policies,” Politico, Oct. 10, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycsjl4r8.

[34] Robinson Meyer, “A Radical New Scheme to Prevent Catastrophic Sea-Level Rise,” The Atlantic, Jan. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yctphwhj.

[35] David Gelles, “Floating Cities, No Longer Science Fiction, Begin to Take Shape,” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb8xldnr.

[36] Olga Mecking, “Are the floating houses of The Netherlands a solution against the rising seas?” Pacific Standard, Aug. 21, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yaclxf58.

[37] Danielle Dreilinger, “Louisiana high school on a barge wins $10 million prize,” Times-Picayune, Sept. 14, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y8tewj3e.

[38] James Carli, “Oceantop Living in a Seastead — Realistic, Sustainable, and Coming Soon,” HuffPost, Dec. 10, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yb26rnvj; Sharon Ogunleye, “Floating school in Lagos lagoon collapses under heavy rains,” Reuters, June 8, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ycluuc77.

[39] Joey Flechas and Jenny Staletovich, “Miami Beach's battle to stem rising tides,” The Miami Herald, Oct. 23, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/zqwq6x9.

[40] Michael Kimmelman, “The Dutch Have Solutions to the Rising Seas. The World Is Watching,” The New York Times, June 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9c7elma.

[41] Tom de Castella, “How does the Thames Barrier stop London flooding?” BBC News, Feb. 11, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y8xedkck.

[42] Antonia Windsor, “Inside Venice's bid to hold back the tide,” The Guardian, June 16, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/ybhb7kpk.

[43] Mark Schleifstein, “Lake Borgne surge barrier wins civil engineering award,” Times-Picayune, March 21, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y9lzfhcr.

[44] David Abel, “As seas rise, city mulls a massive sea barrier across Boston Harbor,” The Boston Globe, Feb. 18, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/hsfv39g.

[45] Dan Atkinson and Chris Cassidy, “New calls for Boston Harbor sea wall after storm surge wreaks havoc,” Boston Herald, Jan. 5, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8fehrsq.

[46] “FACT SHEET — New York/New Jersey Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study,” Army Corps of Engineers, https://tinyurl.com/yaqenf9m.

[47] Henry Goldman, “New York City Planners With Sandy Nightmares Say Barrier May Come Too Late,” Bloomberg News, June 20, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8at83fe.

[48] “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” New York City, June 11, 2013, p. 49, https://tinyurl.com/n2xre5p.

[49] Douglas Brinkley, “The Broken Promise of the Levees That Failed New Orleans,” Smithsonian, Sept. 2015, https://tinyurl.com/y9dx6emn.

[50] John Upton, “New York Boardwalk Shows Climate Adaptation Costs,” Climate Central, June 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycsjrz4j.

[51] Robert Lewis, “Why ‘The Big U’ Storm Barrier Could End Up as ‘Half a J,’” WNYC, Oct. 26, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y9933cjw.

[52] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (1961), p. 9.

[53] John Julius Norwich, ed., The Great Cities in History (2009).

[54] Goodell, op. cit., p. 39.

[55] “Early Nineteenth Century,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://tinyurl.com/y87j8thv.

[56] Anthony Puzzilla, New Jersey Central's Blue Comet (2017).

[57] “City of Miami History,” City of Miami, https://tinyurl.com/yc929z7u.

[58] Erik Larson, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (2000), p. 12.

[59] “The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://tinyurl.com/y88wvs3y.

[60] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), p. 159.

[61] “History of the Clean Water Act,” Environmental Protection Agency, https://tinyurl.com/ltjtss5.

[62] Milton J. Valencia, “After 30 years, court marks Boston harbor cleanup,” The Boston Globe, Aug. 6, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y76b9697.

[63] “The Global Waterfront Renaissance,” Project for Public Spaces, July 31, 2008, https://tinyurl.com/yaxxmg6y.

[64] “National Coastal Population Report,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, March 2013, https://tinyurl.com/yaj37bhk.

[65] Antonia van der Meer, Beach House Happy: The Joy of Living by the Water (2015), p. 18.

[66] Amy Dusto, “Reading between the tides: 200 years of measuring global sea level rise,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Aug. 4, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/jm5fvgp.

[67] Ian Shennan, Antony J. Long, and Benjamin P. Horton, eds., Handbook of Sea-Level Research (May 2015).

[68] Vivien Gornitz, “Sea Level Rise, After the Ice Melted and Today,” NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, January 2007, https://tinyurl.com/y9hzfqo2.

[69] Sweet et al., op. cit.

[70] D.J. Wuebbles et al., “2017: Executive summary,” in Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, https://tinyurl.com/y88kn7bq.

[71] Sweet et al., op. cit.

[72] “Quick Facts on Ice Sheets,” op. cit.

[73] “An intense Greenland melt season: 2012 in review,” National Snow and Ice Data Center, Feb. 5, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/a4bmum8.

[74] “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” op. cit., pp. 11–15.

[75] For background, see Jennifer Weeks, “Climate Change,” CQ Researcher, June 14, 2013, pp. 521–44.

[76] “Status of Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol,” United Nations, https://tinyurl.com/7pe8keq.

[77] Weeks, op. cit.

[78] “Inaugural Address by President Barack Obama,” The White House, Jan. 21, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/y9lhewr7.

[79] “Executive Order — Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard and a Process for Further Soliciting and Considering Stakeholder Input,” The White House, Jan. 30, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/ya4hrhpb.

[80] Franklin Nutter and Robert Moore, “Don't block Obama's flood rule,” Politico, July 6, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ya6atvbm.

[81] Lisa Friedman, “Trump Signs Order Rolling Back Environmental Rules on Infrastructure,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybjtwsox; “Statement from NAHB Chairman on President Trump's Executive Order Rescinding the FFRMS,” National Association of Home Builders, Aug. 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7ktulcx.

[82] “Regional Climate Action Plan 2.0,” Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, Jan. 15, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaf5hk5f.

[83] Bruce Ritchie, “Scott funding request to address sea level rise seen as turnaround for administration,” Politico, Nov. 20, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8c5xphk.

[84] “Executive Order Number 569,” Massachusetts Governor's Office, Sept. 16, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yc5vowal; “Baker-Polito Administration Announces Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Grant Program,” press release, Massachusetts Governor's Office, April 19, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yajm7mep.

[85] “Sea Level Rise Policy Guidance,” California Coastal Commission, Aug. 12, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/yb72ff4y; “Local Coastal Program (LCP) Update,” City of Oceanside, https://tinyurl.com/y9mhh7pm.

[86] John King, “Competition looks at redesign for S.F. Bay as sea levels rises,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycvfxu7o.

[87] “Sea Level Rise Strategy,” City of Charleston, December 2015, https://tinyurl.com/j7kg8k3; Elizabeth Fly, Laura Cabiness and Carolee Williams, “Charleston Takes on Sea Level Rise: Strategies, Funding, and Progress,” City of Charleston, https://tinyurl.com/yd7dbeys.

[88] Andrew G. Simpson, “Why Federal Flood Program Is Sinking Deeper Into Debt: CBO Report,” Insurance Journal, Sept. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yblagytv.

[89] Michelle Cottle, “Can Congress Bring the National Flood Insurance Program Above Water?” The Atlantic, Aug. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yayynsyn; Gloria Gonzalez, “NFIP extended to March 23,” House Reaches Deal on flood insurance,” Business Insurance, Feb. 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8kcpvl2.

[90] “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2017 Interim Report,” National Institute of Building Sciences, Jan. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8nah3n3.

[91] Scott Maucione, “What is the Stafford Act and why might it be making disaster relief worse?” Federal News Radio, Oct. 31, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ydxxl6b4.

[92] Heather Long and Jeff Stein, “12 of the most important things in Congress's massive spending bill,” The Washington Post, Feb. 8, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y93moljl; “A New Foundation for American Greatness: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2018,” The White House, p. 9, https://tinyurl.com/y94yf2ss.

[93] Scott Waldman, “Trump seeks big cuts to science across agencies,” E&E News, Feb. 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yca8khyj.

[94] Henry Fountain and Derek Watkins, “As Greenland Melts, Where's the Water Going?” The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y6ws6eyx.

[95] “Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, https://tinyurl.com/y8wcw8fs.

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About the Author

Christopher Swope, author of this week's edition of CQ Researcher  

Christopher Swope, a writer based in Washington, D.C., specializes in urban policy. He was managing editor of the online magazine Citiscope, which covers cities around the globe. He also was an editorial coordinator at NPR and held various writing and editing positions at Governing magazine. He studied journalism and political science at American University in Washington.

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Document APA Citation
Swope, C. (2018, February 16). Rising seas. CQ researcher, 28, 145-168. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2018021600
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018021600
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Feb. 16, 2018  Rising Seas
Feb. 22, 2013  Coastal Development
Aug. 21, 1998  Coastal Development
Feb. 07, 1992  Threatened Coastlines
Nov. 02, 1984  America's Threatened Coastlines
Nov. 26, 1976  Coastal Zone Management
Feb. 25, 1970  Coastal Conservation
Climate Change
Congress Actions
Consumer Behavior
General International Relations
Humanitarian Assistance
Natural Disasters
Party Politics
Regional Planning and Urbanization
Wetlands, Everglades, and Coastal Areas
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