Hurricane Sandy covered Rockaway Beach, Queens with sand and debris. Photo: Megan Braden-Perry

By  Mark Schleifstein
4 June 2013

(The Times-Picayune) – With the United States coastline, its residents and businesses vulnerable to trillions of dollars of losses from catastrophic storms during the next 75 years, in part fueled by climate change, it’s time for the nation to focus on coastal resiliency, according to Lindene Patton, a risk management specialst with Zurich Insurance Group.

Speaking Tuesday at the three-day Capitol Hill Ocean Week at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Patton said a recent study pegged the potential cost of disasters during the next 75 years at between $1.1 trillion and $5.4 trillion, in line with a similar $4.7 trillion shortfall in Social Security benefits in the same time frame.

“We have a resilience gap,” Patton said, “a circumstance where we have a rising number of catastrophic events. They are not just coastal events, but they are dominated on this continent by coastal events.”

The first day of this year’s Ocean Week conference, sponsored by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and co-hosted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, focused on coastal vulnerabilities.

Kathryn Sullivan, acting undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and a scientist who was the first woman astronaut to walk in space, reminded the 700 attendees that tracking coastal risks has been a role of the federal government since Thomas Jefferson was president.

In 1807, Jefferson established the first scientific coastal survey agency, with a goal of protecting the lives of seamen and the interests of onshore merchants who depended on seaborne commerce, she said. The same day Jefferson signed legislation authorizing the survey, he sent a letter to Congress requesting shallow gunboats to protect the nation’s coasts and ports.

Today, the nation’s coast is home to 39 percent of its population, and 1.2 million people move to the coast each year, Sullivan said.

The nation’s coastal zones are under increasing threats, from overfishing, nutrient and chemical pollution, threats to biodiversity, invasive species and loss of habitat, she said. And the ocean itself is undergoing a literal sea change: The water is becoming more acidic, the result of the same human-driven increases in carbon dioxide that are driving global warming, she said.

And then came Hurricane Sandy.

“Sandy was much more than a weather phenomenon,” Sullivan said. “It was a case study of coastal resiliency.”

Along the New York and New Jersey coastlines, said Sullivan and several other speakers, areas protected by natural features, such as sand dunes and wetlands, fared much better than those where residents refused to allow the dunes to block their view of the ocean.

Similar storms are a likely threat to the U.S. Navy, said Kelly Burks-Copes, a research ecologist with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center. She led a recent study of the potential effects on the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia of storm surges from hurricanes when added to possible sea level rises of 2 feet to 6 ½ feet that could occur in the next 100 years because of climate change.

She found surges caused by a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, the so-called 100-year storm that the levee system in New Orleans is designed for, would cause devastating flooding of the Naval base and the surrounding communities.

The storm surge modeling she used was based on assumptions stemming from research of hurricane surges in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.

The most devastating storm track was a hurricane that paralleled the East Coast and made a left turn into the base. “I was told to my face that doesn’t happen,” Burks-Copes said. And then exactly that scenario occurred when Sandy turned into the New Jersey-New York shoreline last October.

The 100-year storm in Burks-Copes study put 27 feet of surge over the naval base.

She said that as the ocean slowly rises, even smaller events, such as 50-year Nor’easters, could cause significant damage at Naval facilities along the East Coast.

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., who represents the Florida Keys, said south Florida is especially vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise because much of the populated area lies above porous limestone. “You can’t build a floodwall and keep water out, because it just comes up underneath,” he said.

The result is that the state is scrambling to find alternate ways to deal with rising water. But, he said, Congress has been slow to act against the threat. “Like many others, I’m frustrated that we’ve not seen stronger action by Congress,” he said. “These are central issues the nation has to face and we’re simply not looking at them.” [more]

Rising sea levels, stronger storms fueled by climate change will threaten us through end of century, coastal panelists say


  1. Anonymous said...

    Catastrophic sea level rise is expected (and it won't be slow) as Greenland and West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) melt. A carbon "pulse" from the Amazon will trigger. Methane hydrates and permafrost melting will greatly contribute.

    It all means the low-lying coastal zones worldwide are going to be utterly ruined by sea rise, salt water penetration, storm surge and increase storms. Virtually all the world's coral reefs will die.

    "Coastal resiliency" is very inaccurate and will waste trillions of dollars. You can't build a 300 ft. sea wall around the East Cost [sic] for example, and even if you could, it wouldn't actually be much help.

    Humans will have to abandon the current coastlines. This is the truth that needs to be spoken.  


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