Catalyst Fall 2013

Rising Tide


UCS is working with coastal communities already suffering from global warming’s impact on sea levels. We need to build resilience while we seek climate solutions.

By Nancy Cole

When Hurricane Sandy finally petered out last October, it had left its mark as one of the most destructive coastal storms in our country’s history, leaving 150 dead and an estimated $68 billion in damage from Florida to New Hampshire. Even now, some New York City subway stations and Ellis Island remain closed, and several blocks of scenic Route A1A in Fort Lauderdale had to be rebuilt and just reopened in August.  

But it doesn’t take a hurricane to wreak havoc with coastal cities. Rising seas, driven by global warming, are making flooding an everyday concern in low-lying areas—and sparking an urgent call to action.

The Science of Sea Level Rise

Global warming affects sea level in two ways. Extra heat in the atmosphere causes land-based ice (e.g., glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets) to melt, adding water to the oceans. Extra heat is also absorbed by oceans, causing the water to warm and expand. Together, these mechanisms have caused the global average sea level to rise eight inches since 1880; some cities along the East and Gulf Coasts have seen even greater increases, from 12 inches in Miami Beach to 30 inches in Virginia Beach (see the sidebar to learn why). Scientists project the global average sea level may rise an additional 6 to 16 inches by 2050 and between two and six feet by the end of the century, depending on our emissions choices today and in the future.

Storm surges riding on these higher water levels have the potential to cause greater damage further inland. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that global warming has also resulted in stronger, more destructive hurricanes in the North Atlantic. As a result, coastal cities are already being forced to raise roads, build flood defenses, improve storm water and wastewater management, and protect drinking water supplies from the ravages of saltwater intrusion.

UCS Covers the Waterfront

While hurricanes grab national headlines, flooding caused by regularly occurring high tides goes largely unnoticed. UCS is working to change that, using sophisticated outreach and media-savvy analysis to elevate the plight of coastal communities and help them prepare for the inevitability of rising seas. Here are a few examples of our recent efforts.

  • We successfully nominated two Floridians to receive “Champions of Change” Community Resilience Leader awards from the White House. During their visit to Washington, DC, in April to accept their awards, Jennifer Jurado (director of natural resources planning and management for Broward County) and Caroline Lewis (founder and director of the CLEO Institute, an environmental advocacy group) painted a clear picture of the daunting challenges sea level rise poses to South Florida, and explained the region’s efforts to prepare for, adapt to, and slow the pace of rising seas. UCS members and activists urged President Obama to use these Champions of Change as a springboard for national climate action.
  • Also in April, UCS convened a roundtable discussion in New York City featuring 35 city and county planners, emergency managers, sustainability officers, and elected officials from Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia who shared their experiences and best practices for adapting to and managing sea level rise and worsening storm surges. The director of coastal and storm risk management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urged coastal cities to factor in sea level projections as they rebuild infrastructure. The event was covered by both local and national media including The Weather Channel, and the mayors of Hoboken, NJ, and Broward County, FL, subsequently wrote an opinion piece about it that ran on the USA Today website.
  • UCS released a report in August on the flawed incentives that hurt, rather than protect, coastal communities. Overwhelming Risk: Rethinking Flood Insurance in a World of Rising Seas explains how artificially low insurance rates have reinforced risky patterns of development along our coasts, leading to repeated damage to high-risk properties and $20 billion of debt for the taxpayer-funded National Flood Insurance Program. We discussed our findings and recommendations with the media and influential groups such as the Association of Flood Plain Managers, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
  • As Catalyst went to press, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS was developing “Sandy, One Year Later: Looking to the Future,” an event co-sponsored with Monmouth University and New Jersey Future that is part of the Lewis M. Branscomb Forum series. The forum, held in New Jersey on October 29—the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy—brings together scientists, local and national decision makers, and communications experts to explore the lessons learned from Sandy (such as how the public and institutions received information about the storm) and to consider how we can better prepare for the next big storm. View a webcast of the forum.

Local Problems Require National Action

Our nation’s coasts represent an ecologic, economic, and recreational treasure, and coastal residents, properties, and landscapes face ever greater risks from accelerating sea level rise. UCS will continue to make local conditions in coastal states a national issue while helping our partners and colleagues in these states ensure they have the information they need to protect themselves and their communities. And of course we will continue to push for policies that reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions, to prevent climate-related threats to our coasts from getting even worse.

Nancy Cole is director of campaigns in the UCS Climate and Energy Program.


Why Isn’t Sea Level the Same Everywhere?

Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist with the UCS Climate and Energy Program, explains  regional variations in sea level rise and the role of heat-trapping emissions.


Q   Why are some low-lying areas more vulnerable than others?

A  Sea level rise presents challenges for all coastal communities, but in some areas—such as the Gulf Coast—the effects are magnified because the land is subsiding (or slightly sinking) as well. This natural settling can increase the amount of local sea level rise by allowing the ocean to penetrate further inland.


Is land subsidence the only variable?

A  No. Global warming is also causing ocean currents to shift in many places, resulting in changes that tend to either pull water away from the shore or push it in. Along the East Coast, changes in the path and strength of ocean currents are contributing to faster-than-average sea level rise.


How can communities address sea level rise?

A  Unfortunately, some additional sea level rise is already guaranteed due to past emissions of heat-trapping gases, so coastal communities need to prepare for rising tides and storm surges. But adopting policies and practices that reduce carbon emissions now will help minimize future sea level rise and other climate-related impacts. As a scientist, I try to help people understand what they can do to slow the trend—my ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job by making concern about sea level rise a thing of the past.


Read more from Melanie on our blog, The Equation. Learn more information on the science of sea level rise.