WASHINGTON (June 18, 2018)—Accelerating sea level rise, primarily driven by climate change, is projected to worsen tidal flooding in the U.S., putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes in the lower 48 states with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion in today’s dollars at risk of chronic flooding within the next 30 years—the lifespan of a typical mortgage—according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released today. Roughly 14,000 coastal commercial properties assessed at a value of nearly $18.5 billion also are at risk during that timeframe. By the end of the century, 2.4 million homes and 107,000 commercial properties currently worth more than $1 trillion altogether could be at risk, with South Carolina’s coastal real estate among the most exposed.
The analysis combines property data from the online real estate company Zillow with a peer-reviewed methodology developed by UCS for assessing areas at risk of frequent flooding. Using three sea level rise scenarios developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and localized for this analysis, UCS determined how many residential and commercial properties along the entire lower 48 coastline are at risk of becoming chronically inundated from high tides—flooding on average 26 times per year or more (or the equivalent of once every other week)—in the coming decades even in the absence of major storms. The core results in the report are from the high sea level rise scenario—an appropriately conservative projection to use when estimating risk to homes, which are often the owner’s single biggest asset. This scenario projects an average of 2 feet of sea level rise for South Carolina in 2045 and 7.2 feet in 2100. The analysis also projects how many properties might avoid such flooding if sea level rise is constrained through the achievement of the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Agreement and if ice loss is limited.
The results for South Carolina are quite sobering. The analysis finds that without additional measures to adapt to rising seas:
- South Carolina is fifth in the nation for most homes at risk in both 2045 and by the end of the century. By 2045, more than 16,000 of today’s residential properties, largely in Charleston and the so-called Lowcountry and currently home to roughly 24,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation. The total number of at-risk residential properties jumps to nearly 116,000—home to about 186,000 people—by 2100.
- South Carolina ranks fourth in the nation for most property value at risk within 30 years. By 2045, roughly $8.6 billion-worth of residential property (based on today’s values) is at risk of chronic flooding. The homes that would face this flooding at the end of the century are currently worth roughly $52.7 billion.
- South Carolina ranks fifth of all coastal states for amount of property tax revenue at risk by 2045 and the end of the century. The homes at risk in 2045 currently contribute about $71 million in annual property tax revenue. The homes at risk by 2100 currently contribute roughly $427 million collectively in annual property tax revenue.
- Thousands of homes in well-known coastal vacation destinations are projected to be at risk of chronic inundation in the next 30 years, including along the South Carolina Coast. Roughly 1,500 homes on Kiawah Island and 2,700 homes on Hilton Head—which represent about 20% and 10% of each community's contribution to the local tax base respectively—would be at risk.
- Some of South Carolina’s most exposed places have large elderly populations or a high proportion of residents living below the poverty line. On Kiawah and Hilton Head Islands, for example, 25 to 50 percent of the residents are over the age of 65. And in Charleston, where more than 1,600 homes are at risk of chronic inundation by 2045, more than one-third of residents live below the national poverty line.
- By 2045, more than 500 of today’s commercial properties in South Carolina, currently assessed at about $32 million, would experience chronic inundation. In 2100, this number jumps to roughly 3,500 properties—assessed at approximately $201 million today.
- If nations adhere to the primary goal of the Paris Agreement—capping warming to below 2 degrees Celsius—and there is limited loss of land-based ice, about 83 percent of South Carolina’s at-risk homes would avoid chronic flooding by the end of the century, thus safeguarding the vast majority of property values and annual property tax revenue.
Once market risk perceptions catch up with reality, the potential drop in coastal property values could have reverberations throughout the economy—affecting banks, insurers, investors, and developers—potentially triggering regional housing market crises. Homeowners whose properties become chronically inundated may find themselves with mortgages that exceed the value of their homes or face steeply rising flood insurance premiums and may end up defaulting on their loans. Lenders carrying large numbers of these risky mortgages could lose money or even become insolvent, with smaller banks concentrated in areas with high flood risk being especially exposed. Coastal real estate investors and developers may similarly experience financial losses in some coastal areas.
There are currently many federal, state and local policies that, while originally well intentioned, mask risk and create incentives that reinforce the status quo or even expose more people and property to risk. The market’s bias toward short-term decision-making and profits can also perpetuate risky development and investment choices. These flawed policies and incentives include incomplete or outdated flood risk information, subsidized insurance, lax zoning and building codes, incentives for business-as-usual building and re-building, and incomplete credit ratings. Identifying and improving upon the most important policies and market drivers of risky coastal development is a necessary, powerful way to better protect communities and move South Carolina and the nation toward greater resilience.
To view the report PDF, click here.
Spreadsheets with data about the chronically inundated properties are available and can be sorted by state, by community (delineated by the Census Bureau as county subdivisions), and by ZIP code.
To use the interactive mapping tool, click here. The map allows you to learn more about the impact of chronic inundation on properties, people, home values and the tax base in specific states, communities or ZIP codes. When you zoom in, the maps become more detailed. You can also click on a specific state or community for more details about it.
For all other materials, including our methodology document, a compilation of interviews with additional experts on this topic, and Spanish-language materials, click here.
Data provided by third parties through the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). More information on accessing the data can be found at http://www.zillow.com/ztrax.
The results and opinions presented in this report are those of the Union of Concerned Scientists and do not reflect the position of Zillow Group. See full disclaimer at www.ucsusa.org/underwater.