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Countries Are Preparing for Rising Seas But the U.S. Is Far Behind

By 2100, a projected sea level rise of up to seven feet will have tremendous impact around the world.

From The Rising Sea by Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young, Copyright © 2009 Orrin H. Pilkey and Rob Young. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Sounding Retreat

’Round the World

All around the globe, there is growing awareness of coming sea level rise. To date, the United States appears to be behind in what are still very preliminary efforts of many other countries. In 2008, the EPA released an important document intended to set the stage for the nation’s response to sea level rise, but the stated goal of the report was to add to the nation’s prosperity while responding to sea level rise. Maintaining prosperity may be desirable, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. A report with such conflicting goals cannot be taken seriously. Response to a major sea level rise will, of course, involve economic sacrifice on the part of property owners, government, and society as a whole even though jobs will be created in building relocation and other industries.

Initial major sea-level-rise impacts on U.S. development will likely occur along our barrier island coasts. Eventually, urban problems, especially stormwater and wastewater disposal, will begin to take precedence over preservation of beach communities. When our main population centers are truly threatened, and we begin to build dikes and move ports and other infrastructure, small beachfront communities are likely to become declining public priorities. The end result, decades from now, but certainly in this century, will be abandonment of many island tourist communities and, unfortunately, massive seawalling of others.

Today in the United States, action on sea level rise occurs in scattered pockets on a mostly local scale. In Olympia, Washington, a controversy erupted over the siting of the new city hall. Detractors argued the planned site was on low-elevation land built out into Puget Sound and was sure to be inundated within a few decades. A new site at higher elevation was chosen. In Santa Barbara, California, a citizens group proposed to paint a blue line around the city at the 23-foot (7 m) elevation contour to show a worst-case scenario of sea level rise (melting of the Greenland ice sheet). The voters threw it out. Joseph Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, said that replacement and upgrading of the city’s stormwater drainage system was a necessity because of rising sea levels.

Florida takes the prize for being the least prepared of all, especially given its extreme vulnerability. The state effectively has no building setback-from-the-shoreline requirement, and yet it is bound to experience numerous powerful hurricanes in coming decades, storms that will have been intensified by global warming, and it has hundreds of miles of high-rise-lined beaches. When insurance companies backed away from insuring coastal property in 2006, the state, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to slow down hazardous development, simply decided to take over the financial obligation—in spite of the fact that a couple of hurricanes in succession could wipe out the state’s treasury. In early 2009, State Farm Insurance decided to pull out entirely from insuring property in Florida after state regulators denied a request for a rate increase. At a time when sea level rise should be a part of every coastal management program, Florida seawalls are growing by the day. The cost of beach nourishment in the state is skyrocketing, as is the number of people at risk from future storms.

Coastal engineers in the state blame most of Florida’s coastal erosion on coastal engineering activities that interrupt sand transport along beaches rather than on sea level rise. In addition, coastal engineering consulting companies make their living from beach nourishment projects. Why would they ever want to advocate for relocation of buildings? Meanwhile, coastal high-rise construction continues, even though, in a purely geometric sense (because it is so low and flat), Florida is the most endangered state in the nation from sea level rise and Miami the most endangered major city.

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