By Jake Assael
On July 27, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report titled, ‘The US Military on the Front Lines of Rising Seas,’ detailing the risks rising seas pose on our coastal military installations. It analyzed 18 military bases on the East and Gulf coasts, for their potential exposure to the increasing risks levied by sea-level rise, and serves as a proxy for the Nation’s coastal installations. The report cites specific threats that coastal military bases face over the next hundred years, such as more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, land loss, and deeper and more intense flooding due to storm surges. Overall it found that 128 military installations—valued at $100 billion— are vulnerable to 3.7 feet of sea level rise (an intermediate prediction). Although focusing on military installations, the report shines a light on the risks our coastlines face, prompting the question: What else is at risk?
Economy: America’s coastlines are the most profitable and inhabited part of the Nation. They generate almost half of the U.S. GDP, contribute 344 billion in federal tax dollars and provide 51 million jobs. In New York alone coastal counties generate 88 percent of the states GDP, 86 percent of employment, and 88 percent of wages. Despite their economic importance, coastal counties remain highly susceptible to the litany of damages rising seas can deliver. Hurricane Sandy is a recent example. In 2013 New Jersey counties, Monmouth and Ocean, lost an estimated $950 million in tourism dollars and reduced total output by $1.2 billion as a result of Sandy, which occurred in 2012. According to the New York Times, New York incurred $50 billion in economic losses due to the superstorm. That figure was compounded by the additional $20 billion in property damage.
The Gulf Coast is familiar with the damage intensified storm surges can inflict, with both Hurricanes Katrina and Ike harassing the coast in the past decade. Along the Gulf a football field worth of wetlands is being lost every hour, making its economy more prone to storm surges. The Gulf provides America with 33 percent of its seafood harvest, generates $34 billion in tourism revenue, has 10 of the nation’s 15 largest ports, and is responsible for 90 percent of the nation’s offshore crude oil and natural gas drilling. In the past 12 years eight hurricanes have inflicted over $5 billion dollars in damage on coastal counties, with four costing over $10 billion.
Population: Our vibrant coastal economies are predicated on the people inhabiting them. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 39 percent of the U.S population is concentrated in counties directly on the shoreline. Even with threats of sea level change and strong storms, by 2020 NOAA predicts an additional 10 million people will move to coastal areas. This influx will only increase the susceptibility for loss of life during a storm or flood event. The ten-year average for fatalities caused by hurricanes is 43 per year, with floods averaging 84 deaths. As sea levels continue to increase these tolls are likely to increase. We have seen the carnage hurricanes can exact, killing 1,883 during Hurricane Katrina and 285 during Sandy. According to the North Atlantic Coast Comprehensive Study (NACCS), during a hurricane it is the elderly, young, those below the poverty threshold, and those who are not proficient in English that are most vulnerable. Families are also fiscally vulnerable to the tides rising seas can bring. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) states that a family without flood insurance can pay as much as $10,000 in damages from a flood of 1 inch. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy insured losses totaled approximately $25.85 billion, with only $7.1 billion being covered by NFIP. Businesses accounted for 47.6 percent of the privately-insured losses.
The risk of losing valuable infrastructure such as utilities and energy resources has also threatened coastal populations. In New York, New Jersey and Delaware there are 38 power plants and refineries connected to the fossil fuel industry, along with three nuclear plants, and six renewable energy plants. The threat of losing energy resources has implications beyond the coast. America is highly dependent on cheap and conventional energy, which drives down energy prices, and can be easily transported.
Mitigation: Rising sea levels and increased flooding from minor storms or tidal increases have fostered a number of uncoordinated efforts in some communities to find ways to adopt protection measures that will provide some measure of resilience over the next several decades. Measures such as the raising of homes to reduce National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) premiums as well as the incorporation of natural and nature-based features into raised highways or back bay protections are initiatives that appear to be promising. The understandable interest in environmental restoration is also sparking initiatives such as the measure recently approved by communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has the largest GDP in the country (19th in the world) has recently levied a special property tax to restore 30,000 acres of wetlands, to slow down the encroaching seas, and protect industry, human life, and $52 billion in property. Miami Beach has put into action an aggressive and expensive plan to combat the effects of sea level rise. Norfolk—home to the largest naval base—has turned to the Dutch for ideas on how to raise roadways in an environmentally responsible way, and New York City has developed innovative and elaborate plans to protect the residents, workers, and economy of lower Manhattan.
Conclusion: The endangerment of our coastal military installations is another alarm sounding the importance of healthy coastlines. As seas are projected to rise by over three feet in the next hundred years by moderate projections, coastal counties will need to invest an inordinate amount of resources to rebuff the seas. While major cities like San Francisco and New York can invest millions without federal aid, this is not the case for the majority of municipalities along the coast. Federal funding in shoreline protection has been waning over the past decade, and has shown no signs of increasing. At a time where the U.S has already encountered its first climate refugees from sea level rise, this paints a bleak picture.
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