If You Can’t Censor It, Bury It: DOI Tries to Make a Stark New Study on Rising Seas Invisible

May 21, 2018 | 3:22 pm
Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina. Credit: NPS
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

A new National Park Service (NPS) report is unequivocal that human-caused climate change has significantly increased the rate of sea level rise that is putting coastal sites at risk. But the study is difficult to find on the web and the report’s lead author, Maria Caffrey of the University of Colorado, says she had to fight to keep many scientific statements about climate change in the final version.

The report, Sea level Rise and Storm Surge Projections for the National Park Service, was published late on Friday May 18th, with no official announcement or accompanying press release – indeed, no easy way to find it unless you know where to look (hint: it’s here…tell your friends). The report has been several years in the making, and was delayed for several weeks after a draft showing edits removing mentions of human-driven climate change emerged and was reported in The Reveal. In the wake of these revelations, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke was questioned about the changes by House Democrats Chellie Pingree (Maine) and Betty McCollum (Minnesota) in a House Appropriations subcommittee soon after the controversy broke in April. Responding to a question about the report by Pingree, Zinke responded: “If it’s a scientific report, I’m not going to change a comma.”

Since then, the references to human-caused climate change and climate attribution that had been proposed for deletion, have been restored. What we now have in the public domain at last, is a hugely important and detailed analysis of how projected future sea levels and storm surges may impact 118 US national parks. The findings are quite dramatic.

Dozens of US parks at risk from flooding and inundation

The report identifies dozens of famous and iconic sites including Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne and Assateague Island, Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, the Florida Everglades and Jean Lafitte National Historic Park in New Orleans, as especially vulnerable. Several of the sites at risk were also identified by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in its 2014 report “Landmarks at Risk”, which built on previous NPS climate impacts research. Nationally, the new analysis shows that the highest average rate of sea level change by 2100 is projected for the National Capital Region, which puts sites on the Potomac River, and in and around the National Mall at risk.

Simulation of flooding from a category three hurricane striking Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington DC. Credit: NPS

The highest total sea level rise by the end of the century is expected to be seen on coastline of the Outer Banks, threatening Wright Brothers National Memorial, Fort Raleigh and Cape Hatteras, and the broader Southeast Region is expected see the highest storm surges in the future. National parks on Caribbean and Pacific islands are at risk too, including in Puerto Rico and the US territories of Guam, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands.

Parks must plan for worse storms & floods

Using Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sea level rise scenarios and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, the report also looks at how increased rates of sea level rise will interact with increasing hurricane intensity to worsen storm surges. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, storm surge caused widespread flooding throughout the region. That larger storm surge rode in on seas about 12 inches higher than in the pre-industrial period due primarily to warming oceans and melting land ice. Further analysis found that sea level rise added $2 billion to the damages from Hurricane Sandy in New York City. According to the NPS, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused in excess of $370 million in damage to national parks. The costs of 2017’s hurricanes Harvey, Irma & Maria to America’s parks have not yet been fully tallied, but will be large.

The authors of the new report recommend that because of the likely intensification of hurricanes, park managers should base planning on impacts likely from storms at least one storm category higher than any storm that has previously hit their particular park unit. According to the report “When this change in storm intensity (and therefore, storm surge) is combined with sea level rise, we expect to see increased coastal flooding, the permanent loss of land across much of the United States coastline, and in some locations, a much shorter return interval of flooding”. A suite of detailed storm surge maps for 54 sites has been posted on the NPS Coastal Adaptation page on Flickr.

Flood projection for a category 3 hurricane at high tide, Boston Harbor Islands, Massachusetts. Credit: NPS

A win for science and scientific integrity. This time.

The new NPS sea level rise analysis and storm surge maps represent a huge leap forward in terms of the tools that park managers, especially in some of the more remote locations, have available to them to assess the vulnerability of sites, and prioritize planning for resilience. It builds on a growing body of policy- and management-relevant climate science that the NPS’s Climate Change Response Program has been developing over the last decade. This work continues to keep the US at the cutting edge of international efforts to understand and manage climate impacts on cultural and natural heritage, and protected areas. It’s a pity that the DOI seems to be doing everything it can to make this report invisible, and that some of the climate scientists involved had to fight so hard to maintain the scientific integrity of their work.

After the study was published, report author Maria Caffrey, told journalist Elizabeth Shogren, the fight will have been  “worth it if we can uphold the truth and ensure that scientific integrity of other scientists won’t be challenged so easily in the future…”.  For the sake of our treasured national parks, and the dedicated staff who look after them, let’s all say Amen to that.