Environment

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.

Lighthouses, the sentinels of the sea, have a long history of falling into the ocean due to shoreline retreat. Located, as they are, as close to the sea as possible, they are global symbols of the destruction ahead for our society as we face a future of rising seas.

The Eddystone light in Plymouth, United Kingdom, famous in song and legend, went through five iterations between 1696 and 1882 when the current version was built. Each successive lighthouse was destroyed by storm or fire. When the Great Storm of 1703 took out the first lighthouse, its overconfident designer, Henry Winstanley, a famous architect of the time, was inside making repairs. He was never seen again.

Among the U.S. victims of the sea and shoreline retreat are Ponce de Leon Lighthouse, Florida, lost in 1835; successive lighthouses on Sandy Point, Block Island, Rhode Island, in the 1830s and 1840s; Chatham, Massachusetts, twin towers, 1879 and 1888; Cape Henlopen Light in Delaware in 1926; and Tucker Beach Lighthouse, Long Beach Island, New Jersey, 1927. Cape May, New Jersey, is now on lighthouse number three, and perhaps most startling of all is the Morris Island, South Carolina, lighthouse, still standing tall and surrounded by the ocean, 1,600 feet ( 500 m) offshore.

The Morris Island light replaced the original lighthouse that was pulverized by Yankee cannon fire during the 1863 attack on Ft. Wagner in the Civil War (reenacted in the final scenes of the movie Glory). Built in 1876 about 1,600 feet (500 m)behind the beach, it now stands well offshore, leaning at an angle of 2 or 3 degrees. Its foundation is believed to be at least 35 feet (11 m) deep, which may be why it has been able to survive in shallow water in the open ocean.

The saga of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has all the elements that will face society as a whole in a time of sea level rise. This lighthouse was also built 1,600 feet (500 m) back from the shoreline but the base of its foundation was only 6 feet (2 m) deep, well above sea level. This meant that had the shoreline moved past the lighthouse, the structure would have toppled over. First lit in 1880, this black-and-white spiral-striped lighthouse, the second on the site, had become virtually the symbol of the state of North Carolina by the mid-twentieth century. In a 1980 storm, waves swirled around the base of the structure, and it appeared to be on its way to join the list of felled lighthouses. It was saved by a quick-thinking National Park Service that tore up a nearby parking lot and threw it into the roiling surf while the storm still raged. The erosion-threatened structure was finally moved 2,000 feet (600 m) back from the eroding shoreline in the summer of 1999.

The move came after an onerous two-decades-long societal debate that holds lessons for erosion-threatened communities everywhere. Even though the structure was “protected” by a steel groin and a large sandbag seawall, it was clearly in danger of falling into the sea in a big storm. It was also clear that sea level rise was a factor in the shoreline retreat. The Outer Banks of North Carolina are currently thinning at a rapid rate (several feet per year), as are most of the world’s coastal plain barrier islands, by erosion on both sides, a sure sign of an expanding ocean. Beach nourishment at Cape Hatteras had been tried but it didn’t take, and the large seawall approach was rejected by the National Park Service, which had recently adopted a policy of letting nature roll on at the shoreline.

Despite its obvious precarious existence, there was strong resistance in local communities to moving the lighthouse. “We will be the laughingstock of the coast if we move the lighthouse,” was one often-stated platitude. Experts were found who testified that the lighthouse would fall apart if it were moved and others who testified that the lighthouse was in no particular danger from the sea. Politicians refused to seek federal money for the move. Local proponents of the move were ostracized, and violence was threatened against workers who might be involved in the relocation.

Local resistance may have stemmed primarily from a concern of local politicians that the move would draw international attention to the erosion problem, which might hurt local real estate sales. Some may have been worried that if the idea weren’t stopped at the outset, relocation of structures would become the norm for all oceanfront development. We wish this were the case. The eventual move certainly brought the expected international attention, but real estate sales, especially for beachfront property, continued to prosper.

The logjam of resistance to the move was finally broken by a joint National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences panel, which concluded that the lighthouse had to be moved if it was to be saved and that moving it could be accomplished by off-the-shelf technology. They were right.

Other countries are developing a variety of approaches to respond to the expanding oceans. Over the last few decades, development along the Spanish coast outstripped the rest of Europe’s. The result has been a nightmare of pollution and ugliness. In Spain’s coastal region, there are 273 towns with four million residents without waste-water treatment. In 2007, the country took 365 beaches off an approved swimming site list rather than make efforts to clean them up. Dozens of new marinas have sprung up, and the coastal region has become a haven for mafia, drug traffickers, and money launderers, among other shady elements.

In 2008, the new socialist government declared that the time had come to enforce the 1988 Ley de Costas (Coastal Law) that made it illegal to build within 328 feet (100 m) of Spain’s 3,100-mile ( 5,000 km) coastline. Anticipated shoreline retreat due to sea level rise is a prime motivation behind this drastic move, although the government’s estimate that erosion along the Mediterranean coast by 2050 will extend 60 feet (18 m) inland seems very conservative. Spain’s $7 billion plan, which may affect as many as 500,000 people, is to purchase, relocate, and in some cases demolish buildings that were built after 1988 and flouted the law. Politically, this drastic move is less problematic than it might seem because many of the homes threatened by the removal order are owned by nonvoting foreigners, most of them British and German retirees.

South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, which lies between Spencer Gulf on the west and Gulf St. Vincent to the east, is the site of a landmark decision in the saga of human response to sea level rise. At Marion Bay, near the southwestern tip of the peninsula, Northscape Properties planned to site eighty new homes on approximately 20 acres of land near the shoreline. South Australia development requirements are that buildings along the coast must be set back to where they will not be affected by erosion for the next hundred years. In addition, a coastal reserve of 165 feet (50 m) wide must be preserved for recreation and ecological protection. It was clear that the Northscape development did not meet the law’s requirements. The Yorke Peninsula Council listened to several experts and concluded that sea level would rise about 1 foot (0.3 m) in the next fifty years, the shoreline would retreat 115 to 130 feet (35 to 40 m) over the same time frame, and this erosion would put the shoreline at the edge of the seawardmost lots. The South Australian Supreme Court backed up the local government’s insistence that sea level rise was a basis for restricting development—a first for Australia and perhaps for the world.

The United Kingdom has wisely divided up the English and Welsh coasts into eleven units of manageable length based on geology (called sediment cells) independent of political boundaries. Shoreline management plans are then devised for each cell. It is widely accepted that all of the shoreline can’t be protected and that houses and even some villages will have to be surrendered to the sea.

Abandonment has been recommended for 25 square miles (65 km2) of the flat, low-elevation Norfolk “Broads” along with six villages and five small lakes in Norfolk County, East Anglia. Lady Barbara Young, the chief executive of the U.K. Environment Agency, says that between salinization and greatly increased storm damage potential, the sea should be allowed to breach the shoreline, flood the flats, and form a new bay. Coastal experts believe that seawalls would fail to hold back the shoreline here in a time of rising sea level. Most of the villages date from before medieval times, with historic buildings and bridges still standing, making the decision (not final yet) most difficult. There already is a long history of flooding in the area, including the record of a 1287 storm surge flood that killed nearly two hundred people in the village of Hickling. A few miles to the north of the Broads, the village of Overstrand, a cluster of 135 houses plus several businesses, will also be allowed to fall into the sea in this century. Abandonment of this area had been considered in 1662 after a great storm. Local citizens objected strongly, and as a result two thousand men were press-ganged to build new dunes—an approach that obviously can no longer work.

The Thames River Barrier, on the outskirts of London, was designed to protect $160 billion worth of buildings and infrastructure in London from storm surges moving upriver from the sea. The gates have been closed 108 times since they became operational in 1982, but since they were designed in the 1970s, the local sea level rise rate has doubled and it is assumed that it will accelerate even more. With a modest rate of sea level rise, the gates may remain useful until 2082, but with an extreme rate of sea level rise, the gates’ capacity may be exceeded as soon as 2020. New design efforts are under way. The Dutch, masters of protection from the ravages of the sea, have sheltered themselves in recent years with a variety of storm surge floodgates similar in function to the Thames River Barrier. The two grandest ones are the gates protecting Rotterdam and those across the Eastern Schelde, the latter of which was not designed with sea level rise in mind. If breeched by a storm surge, a large developed area of the Eastern Schelde River distributary valley would flood. In any event, a significant sea level rise of 3 feet (0.9 m) or more will probably negate all of the world’s current storm surge floodgates.

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Orrin H. Pilkey is emeritus in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, author of The Corps and the Shore, and editor of the twenty-volume series Living with the Shore. Rob Young is the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and professor of geosciences at Western Carolina University.