Are we Drowning in Sea Level Fear?

Are we Drowning in Sea Level Fear?

February 14 2022

In the 1995 film Waterworld the polar ice caps have melted and most of the world is underwater. Kevin Costner sails a trimaran around the oceans looking for dry land. The premise is fiction – even if all of the planet’s ice melts, projected sea level rise would be about 260 feet.

We hoped our research would tell us how fast and high the oceans will rise. It didn’t. The predictions vary widely. We do know the rise to date is about 9 inches since 1880 and that rate is accelerating. Before the 1990s, the increase was .07 inches per year and in 2020 it has doubled to around .15 inches per year. That’s an inch every 7 years, which doesn’t sound like much. The problem is the future: There are estimates sea level could rise anywhere from 2 to 8 feet by 2100 largely depending on the path of fossil fuel emissions over the next 30 years.

Rising seas are caused by the expansion of a warming ocean because warm water takes up more space than cold water. It’s also caused by water from melting ice sheets and glaciers. The largest, most vulnerable ice sheets are over Greenland and the Western Antarctic. The oceans absorb excess heat caused by GHG emissions. Surface ocean water temperatures have risen by 1.5° F and that warming is spreading to lower depths. As a result, sea level rise is the longest lagging negative outcome due to global warming.

Large chunks of heavily populated coastlines are already at or very close to present day sea level. That coupled with much heavier rainfall, more frequent and intense hurricanes/typhoons with accompanying storm surge, will accelerate the billions of annual damages to valuable coastal and inland real estate around the globe. Hurricane Harvey dumped 40 inches of rain over four days over Houston, Texas in 2017. Gulf of Mexico water temps are pushing over 80 degrees, fueling these super storms. Large areas of Vietnam, Thailand, India and China will eventually be abandoned. Sea level rise migration will become more prevalent.

Many places in the US are already subject to sunny day flooding. Miami Real Estate agents are now taking clients to higher ground (“sell low, buy high”) and since 2000, prices have been rising in poorer neighborhoods at higher elevations in a form of “climate gentrification.” Florida has avoided a major hurricane for many years, but someday soon the ocean will come blasting through the lobbies of the condo towers along A1A from Miami to Jacksonville.

In “Unlimited Sand and Money Still Won’t Save the Hamptons”, Bloomberg reports that over the next 30 years, the U.S. will spend at least $1.5 billion to restore about 80 miles of Long Island’s shoreline, as part of the “From Fire Island to Montauk Point project”. Coastal cities and shoreline communities are spending hundreds of millions installing pumping stations, raising streets and sidewalks, requiring all new houses to be built on stilts, expanding drainage systems and building sea walls.

Insurance companies won’t cover flood damage so homeowners who need insurance to get a mortgage turn to FEMA. Claims have far exceeded premiums for many years, so FEMA has updated its formula for evaluating flood insurance risk resulting in skyrocketing premiums for coastal properties. Under FEMA’s “Risk Rating 2.0” single-family homes will see increases as high as $1,200 next year. By law, annual increases are capped at 18% so premiums could go as high as $6,000 in ten years.

Sea level rise by itself won’t overwhelm our coastlines for many decades but hurricanes and extreme rainfall will. First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor tool uses advanced modeling and analysis to help Americans understand the flooding and wildfire risk to their homes.


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