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Part IV:  National Implications and Science Strategy Go Forward

Coastal Sensitivity to Sea Level Rise

Part III: Preparing for Sea Level Rise

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has released a report that discusses the impacts of sea level rise on the physical characteristics of the coast, on coastal communities, and the habitats that depend on them. The report, Coastal Sensitivity to sea level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region examines multiple opportunities for governments and coastal communities to plan for and adapt to rising sea levels.

Download specific chapters from Part III:  Preparing for Sea Level Rise

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For at least the last four centuries, people have been erecting permanent settlements in the coastal zone of the Mid-Atlantic without regard to the fact that the sea is rising. Because the sea has been rising slowly and only a small part of the coast was developed, the consequences have been relatively isolated and manageable. Part I of this report suggests, however, that a 2 millimeter per year acceleration of sea level rise could transform the character of the mid-Atlantic coast, with a large scale loss of tidal wetlands and possible disintegration of barrier islands. A 7 millimeter per year acceleration is likely to cause such a transformation, although shore protection may prevent some developed barrier islands from disintegrating and low-lying communities from being taken over by wetlands.

For the last quarter century, scientific assessments have concluded that regardless of possible policies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, people will have to adapt to a changing climate and rising sea level. Adaptation assessments differentiate “reactive adaptation” from “anticipatory adaptation”.

Figure 10.4 Wetland migration thwarted by development and shore protection  (Monmouth, New Jersey, August 2003) [Photo source: © James G. Titus, used with permission].

Part III focuses on what might be done to prepare for sea level rise. Chapter 10 (20 pp, 4.6MB) starts by asking whether preparing for sea level rise is even necessary. In many cases, reacting later is more justifiable than preparing now, both because the rate and timing of future sea level rise is uncertain and the additional cost of acting now can be high when the impacts are at least several decades in the future. Nevertheless, for several types of impacts, the cost of preparing now is very small compared to the cost of reacting later. Examples where preparing can be justified include:

Chapter 11 (8 pp, 9.2MB) discusses organizations that are preparing for a possible acceleration of sea level rise. Few organizations responsible for managing coastal resources vulnerable to sea level rise have modified their activities. Most of the best examples of preparing for the environmental impacts of sea level rise are in New England, where several states have enacted policies to enable wetlands to migrate inland as sea level rise. Ocean City, Maryland is an example of a town considering future sea level rise in its infrastructure planning.  The chapter includes a text box on the historic response to sea level rise at the Jamestown colony.

Figure  12.6  Retreat.  (a)  June  2002. Houses along the shore in Kitty Hawk,  North  Carolina.  Geotextile  sand  bags  protect the septic tank buried  in  the  dunes. (b) October 2002. (c) June 2003 [Photo source: © James G. Titus, used with permission].

Chapter 12 (17 pp, 15.2MB) examines the institutional barriers that make it difficult to take the potential impacts of future sea level rise into account for coastal planning. Although few studies have discussed the challenge of institutional barriers and biases in coastal decision making, their implications for sea level rise are relatively straightforward:

Although most institutions have not been preparing for a rising sea (Chapter 11) , that may be changing. As these chapters were drafted, several states have started to seriously examine possible responses. For example, Maryland enacted a statute to limit the adverse environmental impact of shore protection structures as sea level rises; and FEMA is beginning to assess possible changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. It is too soon to predict the result of the interface between increased interest in the consequences of climate change and the institutional barriers (17 pp, 15.2MB) that may have discouraged action until now.

Go Back Part II:  Societal Impacts and Implications
Part IV:  National Implications and Science Strategy Go Forward

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