2014-07-03 / News

NOAA: Coastal towns in danger

By Ken Shane

The Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting presented its annual lecture series last month, and one of the presenters alerted leaders of coastal towns to start preparing for the rising ocean.

The series took place over five days in June at the University of Rhode Island’s bay campus in Narragansett. The lectures are scheduled to coincide with the institute’s annual immersion workshop, which brings 10 journalists from around the world to the Graduate School of Oceanography to learn how researchers do their work.

Among this year’s lectures, which included talks on ocean acidification and using big data to understand the earth’s future, was one of particular relevance to area residents.

Margaret Davidson, the acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s office of ocean management, presented a lecture titled “Building Resilience: How coastal communities can roll with the punches.” Davidson, who has a master’s degree in marine policy and resource economics from the University of Rhode Island, currently resides in Charleston, S.C.

“The great thing about weather is that stuff happens,” she said.

In the last 20 years, according to Davidson, there have been more extreme weather events worldwide, and she outlined the cost to society.

“We have a policy of insuring people who live in dumb places,” said Davidson, cautioning that every number the public sees in relation to the human, social and environmental costs of these events is a “lowball.”

America was born on the coast, she said. While the shoreline comprises 20 percent of the nation’s land area, it is home to 50 percent of the population. Nineteen of America’s 21 largest cities are on a coast, she added, and those areas contribute half of the gross domestic product.

“The coast is the goose that laid the golden egg that keeps the American economy going,” Davidson said.

Recent galvanic events like Hurricane Sandy have changed the conversation in America, Davidson said, and more people are thinking about the effects of climate change. She mentioned one New Jersey town on a barrier island. Residents there opted not to rebuild their dune system after an earlier storm, and then Sandy hit and decimated the town. Neighboring communities with dunes were not as badly affected, she said. Davidson cautioned communities that suffered storm damage not to repeat their mistakes.

“If you rebuild the same way, you’re going to be in the same fix that you were in before,” she said.

Davidson likened resilience to a tapestry, with threads that run in both directions and can take a lot of stress. In order for the tapestry to remain a fabric, however, it has to retain some intact threads. That’s where healthy communities, which organize in advance, come into play.

“You cannot wait for a major problem to assert itself,” she said.

According to Davidson, civic and social planning make infrastructure and land healthier, and caring is as important as connectivity. A well thought-out process of threat identity is required, along with response and recovery planning, she said. Creating a culture of resiliency is not done by catching up in the wake of a disaster.

Davidson said that the NOAA provides information to assist adaptive planning for facilities and operations. The federal agency also incentivizes adaptation at other levels, including uniform flood risk reduction.

“Pay attention to the discussion of flood risk and flood maps, because the flood is coming to you soon,” she said.

Many states have been elevating roadways and raising bridges in anticipation of the rise in water levels, she said. According to Davidson, no matter who the next president is, the country is going to need a lot of infrastructure work to prevent becoming a third-rate nation.

When it comes to low-lying areas like southern Florida, Davidson summed up their future bluntly: “They are toast,” she said.

America has never attempted large-scale population relocations, but Davidson said it may become necessary because 60 million people in the United States are at risk for extensive flooding in the next few decades.

By the end of the century, current projections of sea-level rise range from a low of 0.7 meters based solely on the historical data, to an intermediate low of 1.6 meters based on global warming. A high of 3.6 meters is based on recent ice sheet loss, and the highest projected rise of 6.6 meters is based on a maximum projection of ice sheet loss and glacier melting.

“Things are happening at a rate that even really smart people didn’t foresee,” Davidson said.

While the gridlock in Washington is preventing any response to climate change, said Davidson, the reaction is happening at the local level by mayors and some governors. Risk is being mitigated in part by revising building and zoning codes, creating contingency plans, and community outreach.

“The people who run our lives sit on the chamber of commerce, and zoning, and planning boards,” she said. “We’re always one step behind the guys with the money, shaping our lives on a grand scale.”

Davidson acknowledged that building on the coasts is not going to stop immediately, but suggested that things can be done.

“Not just elevating. Not just hardening. Deal with the natural environment. Change is here. The time to act is now.”

By managing the coast one person at a time, she said, the country is winning a few battles, but losing the war. It’s also costly: The United States is the only nation that bails out people who live in hazardous places.

Davidson concluded her lecture on a cautionary note. “I have the highest confidence in Mother Nature’s ability to win the final battle.”

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