Coming Soon to New Hampshire: Local Leaders Tackle Our Non-Partisan Coastal Flooding Problem

October 13, 2015 | 3:08 pm
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

What do you get when you take sound science and add real-life coastal impacts—like the king tide flooding many witnessed last week? In a rational world, you get elected officials concerned about coastal flooding, erosion, subsidence, heavier precipitation and sea level rise coming together and seeking solutions. And this is what we can expect from the October 2015 Rising Tides Summit.

Leadership on the sea level rise frontline

Hampton home flooded

An extreme high tide in Hampton, NH, swamps a backyard. Photo: Jill Farrell/courtesy of PREP’s 2012 King Tide Photo Contest

Later this month, thirty-five elected officials from both parties—as well as a number of independents —will gather on the New Hampshire seacoast to discuss coastal flooding, its impacts on their communities, what they can do, and what they need state and federal leaders to do to help. This group is comprised of a roughly even number of Democrats and Republicans and several independents. They represent 19 out of the 23 U.S. coastal states. They include mostly mayors, but also city councilors, county commissioners, and state legislators, and they represent a range of perspectives. Listen up, elected officials of America! Regardless of who’s debating what in Congress, these people are living in the non-partisan world where constituents are dealing with coastal flooding. And many of them not only understand the realities of sea level rise, they see it all the time, and they’re showing what real leadership looks like when confronted with confounding challenges.

You can check out the list of participants here. Some participants, like those from South Florida, have just witnessed extensive king tide flooding, with several days of road closures and fish swimming in feet of water on Fort Lauderdale streets. Others, like those from the Carolinas, have just weathered unprecedented coastal and inland flooding as storms collided over already saturated areas. The staggering damage in South Carolina results from flooding that has been called “unprecedented and historical”, “biblical”, a “thousand-year event” and “one of the worst natural disasters in state history”. But science tells us that, with climate change, those terms no long apply to many extreme events. In reality, we’re being hit repeatedly with weather events that were previously considered rare. That is our climate change reality.

America’s non-partisan sea level rise problem

Our coasts—where sea levels, driven by global warming, are rising at an accelerating rate—provide some of the starkest examples of this. In many locations, previously rare tidal flooding has quadrupled in the past forty years, to become a more regular occurrence. And astute leaders are asking what to expect as sea level rise drives tides higher still. A 2014 UCS report found that, in many locations where tidal flooding currently occurs a handful of times a year, we can expect a tripling or more in flood events in fifteen years, and a ten-fold or greater increase in thirty years. By 2045, in the lifetime of a home mortgage, one third of the locations we analyzed (17 in total) can expect 180 or more tidal flood events per year. And these are not the only risks of sea level rise.

US map with projections

As we outline on our website: Roughly a third of the U.S. population—more than 100 million people—live in coastal counties. The risks to coastal states include:

  • Shoreline erosion and degradation. Rising sea levels allow waves to penetrate further inland, even during calm conditions, increasing the potential for erosion.
  • Amplified storm surges. Coastal storms often cause storm surges, which occur when high winds push water inland. With rising seas, storm surges occur on top of an elevated water level and can be higher and reach farther inland.
  • Permanent inundation. Many low-lying coastal land areas are expected to be gradually submerged by rising sea levels, impacting millions of lives and trillions of dollars of property and infrastructure. (See map).
  • Saltwater intrusion. Saltwater can reach further into coastal groundwater sources as sea level rises, increasing the salinity of freshwater used for drinking and agriculture.

In light of the stark bottom-line that sea level rise science is revealing, astute leaders are asking what they can do to respond.

Coastal leadership in a warming world = non-partisan learning and action

That’s what the New Hampshire summit is about: exploring what’s happening and what local leaders can do. During the 2-day gathering, participants will hear not only from one another, but also from the Administrator of NOAA, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan; from the U.S. Navy’s Rear Admiral White; from FEMA Deputy Associate Administrator for Insurance and Mitigation, Roy White; and from NOAA Oceanographer and one of the world’s leading coastal flooding researchers, Dr. William Sweet. What they’ll hear from these experts, and from each other (including NH leaders who are hard at work on this problem) will help achieve one of the Summit’s core goals: to “equip local elected officials with new information, ideas and relationships they can use to better serve the people back home”.

flooded mom kids bikes

Our changing coasts call for serious problem solving. Photo: Ratsiola

And, taken together, the event promises to be a demonstration of widespread concern and leadership on the issue of sea level rise. It will stand in stark contrast to the absence of widespread concern and leadership at the federal level, including in Congress, but also on the part of most presidential candidates. People up and down our coasts are waking up, under sunny skies, to high tide in their front yards, in flooded parking lots, and on closed roads, and are living with our very big, very real sea level rise problem. The rest of America’s leaders need to wake up to this, too.