US coasts face far more frequent severe floods

October 2012: Hurricane Sandy visits Manhattan. Image: By Beth Carey, via Wikimedia Commons

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

 

For US coasts, high-water hazards have just become more hazardous: a lot more hazardous, say scientists.

LONDON, 24 April, 2020 − A new study of high-water levels on US coasts in 200 regions brings ominous news for those who live in vulnerable towns and cities.

By 2050, floods expected perhaps once every 50 years will happen almost every year in nearly three fourths of all the coasts under study.

And by 2100, the kind of extreme high tides that now happen once in a lifetime could wash over the streets and gardens of 93% of these communities, almost every day.

The message, from researchers led by the US Geological Survey, is that sea levels will go on rising steadily by millimetres every year, but the number of extreme flooding events could double every five years.

Researchers outline their argument in the journal Scientific Reports. They looked at the data routinely collected from 202 tide gauges distributed around the US coasts and then extended the tidal levels forward in time in line with predictions based on global sea level rise that will inevitably accompany ever-increasing global average temperatures, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use.

“The impact of this finding bears repeating: sea level rise will likely cause ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ coastal flooding events to occur nearly every day before 2100”

Other scientists have warned that the damage from coastal flooding, storm surges and marine invasion will rise to colossal levels by the century’s end, that routine high-tide floods will become increasingly common, and that up to 13 million US citizens now in coastal settlements could become climate refugees.

But researchers based in Chicago, Santa Cruz and Hawaii wanted more than that: they wanted to know what sea level rise will do, as the waters lap ever higher, from year to year.

“Sea level rise is slow, yet consequential and accelerating,” they point out. “Upper end sea level rise scenarios could displace hundreds of millions of people by the end of the 21st century. However, even small amounts of sea level rise can disproportionately increase coastal flood frequency.”

The researchers selected 202 sites, most of them in sheltered harbours or bays, for their tide data: that way their record reflected the highest tides and storm surges, but not the haphazard readings of waves.

They concentrated on what they called “extreme water-level events” of the kind that happened once every 50 years, because most US coastal engineering work is based on that kind of hazard frequency. And then they started doing the calculations.

Exponential hazard growth

For nine out of 10 locations, the difference between the kind of flood that happened every 50 years and the sort that occurred maybe once a year was about half a metre. For 73% of their chosen tide gauges, the difference between the daily highest tide and the once-every-50-years event was less than a metre. Most projections for sea level rise worldwide by the end of the century are higher than a metre.

Once the researchers had set their algorithms to work, they found that even in median sea-level rise scenarios, the hazards grew exponentially. They found that all tidal stations would by 2050 be recording what remain for the moment 50-year events, every year. When they set the timetable to 2100, 93% of their locations would be recording a once-in-50-years flood every day.

“The impact of this finding bears repeating: sea level rise will likely cause ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ coastal flooding events to occur nearly every day before 2100,” they warn.

This would have profound consequences for what they call extreme events. And even in ordinary circumstances, beaches are increasingly likely to be washed away, and cliffs eroded.

The researchers conclude: “Our society has yet to fully comprehend the imminence of the projected regime shifts in coastal hazards and the consequences thereof.” − Climate News Network