Water, Water Every Where

Published Jul 9, 2024

A groundbreaking new report reveals the looming threats facing United States coastlines from now through 2100. Experts Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto and Shana Udvardy cover what you need to know.


Here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we’ve just released a groundbreaking new report called Looming Deadlines for Coastal Resilience. As sea levels rise around the world due to the effects of human-driven climate change, we’re going to need to adapt to seawater incursions further and further onto land.

I spoke with Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto, a geographer and Bilingual Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability here at UCS, who worked on the report. Juan has a personal connection to the hazards facing coastal communities as he’s part of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. I also talked with Shana Udvardy, Senior Climate Resilience Policy Analyst here at UCS who is also an author of the report. She is a Certified Floodplain Manager and works to advocate for policies that will protect people and infrastructure from climate change.

Here's what you need to know to stay high and dry.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is science.

Juan: Our looming deadlines analysis was trying to understand how sunny day flooding due to sea level rise from global climate change, that is, flooding that happens without any clouds in the sky, just due to the increase in the sea levels and the tides, how this is going to impact the 90 million people or so that live in the coast of the United States and its territories. There is a lot of infrastructure upon which people depend to live their lives, and I'm talking about power plants and electrical substations and schools of all levels through K-12 and university system. There's also fire stations, police stations, ambulance services, hospitals, which are pieces of infrastructure that people use in their everyday lives. And if those were to be flooded and disrupted, their services were disrupted, then that would make people's lives a lot more difficult. We sought to try to understand how that would happen if climate change goes unchecked.

Shana: Previously, we put out a report called Underwater and looked at the impacts of tidal flooding and chronic tidal flooding on housing, on people's homes and businesses. But we're also interested in seeing the impact on infrastructure and we know particularly critical infrastructure is this type of infrastructure that people rely on for their lives, for their daily lives. So these are things like hospitals or energy substations. And so we really wanted to see what the impact of tidal flooding would be now and to the mid to end of century with climate change.

The thing about the tidal flooding with public and affordable housing is that we already have an affordable housing crisis. I think a lot of people are hearing more and more about that where people are struggling to find affordable places to live. So, when we see this, you know, the small amount of public and affordable housing that is available and then look at this overlay of tidal flooding that's going to be projected to happen between now and mid-century to the end of the century, it is very concerning to think about how are we going to sustain what we already have? And then of course, we want to ensure that there are resources moving forward so we can build and ensure there's more public and affordable housing.

Juan: Growing up in Puerto Rico, I lived through a couple of hurricanes. The impacts of climate were not so clear or so dire, I should say, back then, in the mid '80s, late '90s, when I was growing up there. But more recently, there was, as you know, Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma in 2017. I was not living in Puerto Rico at the time. I am a part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, and I have been here for something like two decades in the United States, I should say.

And so I didn't witness the hurricane firsthand, but my family was living there. And the level of destruction is well known. The island was flattened by the force of the hurricanes, especially Maria, by the force of the winds, by the amount of water and precipitation that was dropped on the island in a short amount of time. And that amount of precipitation, the ferocity of those winds and the speed of those winds, and the rapid intensification of these kinds of hurricanes are due to climate change. We could not have these kinds of meteorological disasters without a much warmer planet driven by climate change.

JESS: The Looming Deadlines report isn’t just another dire warning about more severe, more frequent storms driven by climate change, however. It highlights another more insidious type of climate crisis-fueled flooding: so-called “sunny day flooding.” As sea levels rise, be prepared to hear that term A LOT.

Juan: Well, it may be puzzling at first to see the water coming in little by little. You know, you may be in Miami or you may be somewhere in coastal Louisiana or somewhere in the eastern seaboard or maybe in Puerto Rico. And there's not a cloud in sight, and yet some of the streets that are adjacent to the coastal area, to the water, are starting to get flooded. It's a couple of inches of rain, and a couple of inches of water here and there may not seem very disruptive. But that kind of flooding during sunny days without a single inch of rain falling down is indicative of climate change, creating sea level rise and accelerating sea level rise, and allowing then the tides, as they naturally come in and out, to flood areas that otherwise would be dry.

Juan: This sort of flooding is starting to show up and, in our analysis, using the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's tidal gauge data that calculates globally what the average sea level rise would be under a couple of different scenarios of 1.6, 3.2, and 6.5 feet global average, you know, would have dire consequences for a lot of the coastal infrastructures along the coastal United States. Sea level rise is advancing more rapidly in many parts of the United States than it is advancing globally.

Shana: This is already happening in some places. So I think that we hear about, you know, the sunny day flooding that happens on, or king tides, that happens every once in a while. We see this happening in places like Hampton Roads in Virginia and many other places. Even in Boston there are areas right in Boston that are already seeing this kind of sunny day flooding that isn't connected to a storm, isn't connected to rainfall. So, this is already becoming kind of a nuisance, you know. We call it nuisance flooding often. And so into the future, we can imagine that if it is critical infrastructure that's being disrupted, if it's maybe an energy substation, that means that, you know, salt water intruding onto this type of infrastructure can cause corrosion and could eventually have some major impacts.

It could be something where, you know, we're seeing twice a year type of flooding where it could be more of a nuisance to where it's much more frequent, where we're really going to need to be considering, okay, what are the additional impacts? Maybe there's erosion as well, or maybe there's a storm on top of that high tide flooding, which means we can get more storm surge going further inland. And so it ends up being, when we start thinking about what we're expected to see in some places, definitely a big concern, especially when a lot of our infrastructure is already needing to be repaired or is not in the best condition at the moment.

JESS: UCS scientists recognized the danger sunny day flooding poses to our country and decided to put the best available science in one place. The idea is that you, the public, and policy-makers at the local, state, and federal level can use hard data to help make decisions to keep people and property (especially the nuts and bolts of our infrastructure) safe.

Shana: The good thing about this report is that it is, and similar to some other reports that we've done is, it provides a glimpse into what we can expect into the future. And so this gives some communities time to understand how much time they have.

Juan: Well, what we're hoping to do as a mission-driven organization, as an organization that is interested in using policy that the federal government uses policy with the best available science and to fix the climate crisis in an equitable way, is to combine such scientific data from the tidal gauges with the locations of various pieces of critical infrastructure, like I mentioned, the kinds of things that people need to live, that people depend on to live their lives, to take the children to school, to power their homes, and so on. But also, there are other kinds of infrastructures that house toxic or dangerous industrial pollutants, and if those were to be flooded, then that would pose significant threats to people's health, right?

So, how do we go, then, from the science to moving the needle, like you said? Well, by building this report, by developing the science, by working with the best available sea level rise science and comprehensive data sets of critical infrastructure where we show for a number of different years, 2030, 2050, and 2100, at the end of the century, under a couple of different scenarios and frequencies of inundation, what would happen to this infrastructure? Because we need to be ready for this. The seas are rising, and as a society, we're not ready for it. As a country, we're not ready for it.

So we need to be able to put the protections in place that will prevent this infrastructure from being flooded twice a year, once every month, or something like twice a week. Imagine if the water waste treatment plant that keeps your water clean, that delivers to you portable water for multiple different uses at home, in industry, agriculture, or commercial uses, were to be knocked out of commission. Here in the D.C. region where I live, this is sort of a tristate region with D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the wastewater treatment plant services nearly a million people. If that wastewater treatment plant were to be knocked out of commission because it's flooded, because it has to be turned off, because it can blow up, and because it can be unsafe, because it cannot operate, then that could significantly disrupt the lives and the health of people who rely on that infrastructure to live their lives.

So we're hoping that this is a wake-up call to policymakers at all levels to put the protections in place to harden this infrastructure from these damages, to scale up investment, especially among disadvantaged communities that many of them are coastal communities that, for very, very long periods of time, have faced higher burdens to sea level rise impacts, to floating impacts in general, and to any other kinds of environmental and climatic impacts.

Juan: I mean, climate change is a multiplier of existing vulnerabilities, right? The vulnerabilities and the disparities that some populations have typically historically and even in a contemporary way, low-income communities of color, those disparities that they have faced have been there for a long time, for centuries, since this country became a country. They have been magnified by climate change. Those existing disparities have been magnified by climate change.

JESS: We’re here because we haven’t listened to scientists enough when it comes to making government policies. Entire communities are extremely vulnerable, and chronic underfunding of infrastructure repair and improvement has us to this point. This is serious, but fortunately all is NOT lost.

Shana: Our report found that some of the communities that have been historically disadvantaged do happen to have more of this type of critical infrastructure at risk. And so what we really need to do at a national level is make sure that Congress and the administration are putting more resources to these communities. The good news is, is the administration does have a current program in place called Justice 40, which helps to target funding, 40% of some of the funding in the infrastructure bills to these disadvantaged communities.

So, that'll help to provide a few more resources to help these communities. But I think what this report helps to do is make sure the sort of under the radar risk is being put to light and, hopefully, we can get even more resources to these communities in addition to technical assistance. So, it's one thing to have maybe the ability or that there are grants available, but then some of these communities could actually need some help in actually applying for the grant. So that's where technical assistance comes in.

Juan: This is a kind of message that scientists have been saying and telling for a long time, right? The lack of action on our part, I mean, on our governments, on the private sector, has landed us where we are right now. And this is why this has become such a crisis. This is why we are facing these dire impacts.

Juan: So, to give you an idea, by 2050, and assuming a medium sea level rise scenario, we can expect that as many as 1,662 pieces of infrastructure will be at risk of being flooded on average twice a year. This is a nearly doubling of the number of critical infrastructures that we would expect to be inundated compared to 2020 or 2020 baseline.

Juan: So to give you an idea of how this problem is going to continue to evolve without climate action, by 2100 and assuming a medium sea level rise scenario, which is about 3.2 feet globally, as many as 6,533 pieces of today's critical infrastructure in the U.S. coastal areas will be at risk of being flooded on average twice a week annually. This is a seven-fold increase from 2020.

To give a clear idea of what kind of flooding we're talking about, right, we're talking about sunny day flooding, right? It's flooding only due to sea level rise and the tides coming in, right? We're not talking about acute events like riverine flooding, storm surge, hurricanes, or typhoons, or anything like that.

JESS: Since so much of our country’s population lives on the coasts, it’s only fair to ask which areas are at risk.

Shana: In our report, there are certain states that stood out, Florida, New York, and New Jersey, or some of the areas, especially in Virginia, Louisiana. But I grew up in Rhode Island, the ocean state, and I see the risk happening here already. You see higher tides, higher storm surge, and the higher storm surge is affecting the town of Warren, which is one town away from where I grew up in Bristol. And, so, I think we're seeing some of these smaller towns really struggling to come up with the resources to deal with these kind of impacts.

And so, for example, Rhode Island knows about this risk and has quite a few resources as far as online and understanding when the risk is going to take place, but the threat of tidal flooding. But when it comes down to these smaller communities like Warren, where their wastewater and water treatment infrastructure is at risk, it's really a different picture. And trying to come up with those resources to either elevate the area or put a seawall in or whatever it is, or even try to get plans to move the infrastructure out of harm's way, takes a lot of funding, a lot of planning. And so that's a concern.

Juan: There are places not far from where I live, Crisfield, Maryland, along, you know, a small, mostly rural, exurban kind of community in the eastern seashore is facing a lot of potential flooding. These are low-lying areas, tides come in, you know, the kind of marshy areas as well. They have very old infrastructure.

Juan: A place closer to home, we talked about this a little bit already in terms of impacts, Puerto Rico, especially the San Juan area and the location of the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico and the United States called Residencial Luis Lloréns Torres, where a couple of thousand people live. It's almost like a small town. It's a concentrated area of poverty and disadvantage surrounded by wealthy areas. And that is very close. That public housing project is very close to the water that these impacts in Puerto Rico are going to hit by the end of the century, not so much in 2050. But that housing project and many of the other pieces of critical infrastructure around there could be significantly flooded at least twice a year per year by 2100.

Shana: The coastal states are one of our most populated areas. And so it's going to impact millions of people. And this will be maybe not today, but into the future. And so, when we're thinking about where we're going to be investing in new infrastructure, or even homes and businesses, we need to be sure that people have the latest science like this to plan. And then also to advocate at the local, state and national level for policies and resources. So at the local level, this looks like something as perhaps as simple as zoning. It's usually not simple and it usually is quite political. But there are ways to zone areas where you can encourage less development and maybe natural areas where that can handle and be able to handle the tidal flooding. And so, I think that while we're thinking about the impacts, we need to be thinking about all the different solutions that people can be working on now.

Shana: We in the United States have been really fortunate to have had two big infrastructure bills passed by Congress and signed into law by the administration, by the Biden administration. But I think a big takeaway is that there this provides the science to understand what the risk is along the coast of this type of tidal flooding. And then we can advocate for more resources at the national level. And so while we were very thankful and appreciative of seeing these infrastructure bills in place, we can do more to get more resources out to especially these areas that may not have that tax base to pull from. And then at the local and state level, I think, you know, the message is that, you know, we can again, it's the same at the local and state level, while the federal government needs to be there to provide resources to a certain level, it's a good time now to start planning and understand when that risk is going to be coming and think about policies or solutions such as maybe, you know, as I mentioned, the zoning, but also maybe moving infrastructure out of harm's way. Because the big picture is, is that at some point, we're not going to be able to necessarily adapt our way out of this, right? I mean, the tides are going to be coming and we can build above the flood elevation. But then we also need to think about storm risks. So, some of this type of critical infrastructure may be best to be moved and away from the coast and further outside of the coastal area.

JESS: Since we’re the Union of Concerned Scientists, as usual I asked Shana and Juan about their concerns.

Shana: As I mentioned, I grew up in Rhode Island, and I find the nature and the ocean and just being in natural areas just to be kind of special places. And I'm very concerned about the climate, climate change and the impacts on natural areas and biological diversity. But, of course, on, you know, the impacts on people, we're seeing the disasters becoming more frequent and intense and in some cases, you know, heavier rainfall and the damages from disasters increasing. And so, we really need to be doing a better job at the national level of communicating how to build better, build stronger in some cases, build out of harm's way in other cases, and try to get more resources on the front end so that we can, you know, do these better solutions instead of repairing after the fact.

Juan: I'm concerned. I'm concerned as a scientist. I'm concerned as a father. I'm concerned as a Puerto Rican, as a person. I'm concerned that what scientists have been saying for decades about the need to act on climate, the need to decarbonize our economy, our transportation systems, our manufacturing systems, all aspects of industrial production and agricultural production, have not been heard. And now, we are in this very, very dire situation. I'm concerned that more than 1,000 people died in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the obligation that Muslims have, also known as the Hajj. I'm concerned that most of the people who died there were people who did not have the money to pay for expensive permits to officially attend.

So once again, it's illustrative of vulnerable people always being the lowest sort of priority for anybody, you know, for governments everywhere, for the private sector. You know, this is an example, but you know, you can see it throughout here in the United States as well, the lack of concern for the well-being of people, the prioritization only of the bottom line of a few companies, of a few individuals, right, at the expense of everybody else. And that is, there's a callousness there. There's a cruelty there that doesn't live up to any of the promises on which this country was built on, right? So that's kind of scratching the surface of the things I'm concerned about.

JESS: It’s not enough to be concerned. We have to act on those concerns. There is no Captain Planet coming to save us. We have to put in the hard yards to save ourselves. There’s a lot we can do to that end, in fact.

Shana: You know, it depends on the kind of person you are. You know, if you don't have time, but you want to be doing something. I mean, not to plug the Union of Concerned Scientists, but I mean, you can become a member, you know, and offer whatever amount you want. But the good thing about that is then you can get the information. And so you can kind of play the role you want to play just as far as being informed sometimes that's half the battle. But we also have advocacy newsletters where we can get in touch with you once in a while and you can write to your representative in a way that can really help on some of these issues, whether it's updating the National Flood Insurance Program or getting more funding for disaster assistance. So, that's one easy way. Another way is voting. We always encourage people to vote and climate change is a great question to ask any elected official what they're working on as far as it concerns climate change. And then always bring it back to your own backyard and what you care about. I think that message always resonates with people. And so if there's something that you really care about, I think, make sure that your local elected official is working on that.

JESS: Everyone’s individual path to action will look different, and scientists have a unique ability to move the needle. Don’t forget that.

Juan: I am trying to make the research that I take part in, that I co-design and co-create with my colleagues in the Union of Concerned Scientists and with external partners from impacted communities, I try to make it as relevant as possible. And this is a call to the other scientists, you know, to those of us who train only almost exclusively in an academic way to think that the Science, with the capital S, is the important thing. I think, increasingly, for me, that has been a little bit less relevant and less important. And the thing that has become more relevant and more important is, how is this thing that you are doing going to help fix the problem that you're talking about? What is your contribution to the world? How do you take your privileges of learning about these things in a classroom or getting a Ph.D., a master's degree, and use that to work with the people who did not have the privilege of learning these things in a classroom who actually lived through it or their relatives died in a heat wave or a hurricane or a flooding event, and work together with those folks who have that expertise of the lived experience, the expertise that many of us do not have to assess that, to understand that scientifically, to find solutions that are equitable?

For the full Looming Deadlines for Coastal Resilience report, an interactive map, our blog series on the topic, and our Spanish-language podcast Ciencia Consciente’s sea level rise episode, and our Know Your Risk home buyer’s guide, visit ucsusa.org online and look in our Reports section for Looming Deadlines.

Huge thanks to Juan, Shana, and the entire Looming Deadlines report team for doing the hard work we so desperately need. Thanks also to Omari Spears for production help, and to Josie Spanier for our multimedia magic.

Until next time, stay dry, science friends!

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