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Are You In the Zone? New Tool Helps Communities Prepare for Surging Seas

Dan Lashof

Posted March 15, 2012

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Last month I wrote about a detailed study of the increasing flooding risks New York City faces due to rising seas and changing storm patterns driven by heat-trapping pollution. The study concluded that what used to be a storm of the century could become a storm of the decade.

This week researches at Climate Central published studies and released a nifty interactive map that look at increasing flooding risk for the entire U.S. coastline. If you live near the coast you can enter your zip code and see a localized map of the areas that will flood at different storm surge levels.

For example, this map shows the area that would be flooded in Virginia Beach by a 4 foot storm surge. Such a storm is currently considered a once-in-a-hundred-years event in the area, but has about a one-in-three chance of occurring in the next twenty years as sea levels rise. The flooding would impact more than 10,000 homes and almost 30,000 people.

Nationally nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes that are within the flood zone defined by 4 feet above current mean high tide. According to the study, there are even odds or better of a storm surge at least that high within 20 years at more than half of the sites studied. Florida is particularly vulnerable with eight of the ten most at risk cities and more than $30 billion dollars worth of propoerty in the flood zone in just three counties in the southeast of the state.

In addition to the studies and map, Climate Central has compiled links to a useful set of tools for states and communities to use in preparing for this increasing flood risk. A quick look at these resources shows that some states are further along than others. The section for plans, actions, and resources is completely blank for seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. I know that some of these states are hotbeds of ideological climate denial (follow the links in the previous sentence), but that’s not going to help them much when the storm surge hits.

Fortunately, a lot of people seem to be paying attention to this latest warning from scientists, perhaps because it breaks the information down to the local level where the reality is a little closer and the ideological politics are a little further away. The New York Times story on the study was among that outlet’s top ten most emailed stories today; NBC News, CBS News, and PBS Newshour all aired feature stories last night, and dozens of local newspapers and television stations also picked up the story. Unfortunately, many of these stories felt compelled to practice he-said-she-said journalism by including a quote from a climate denier claiming, with absolutely no substantiation, that the sea level rise projections were based on models with no predictive power. In reality the peer-reviewed climate models underlying the peer-reviewed studies underlying these projections have an excellent track record.

Of course, as Yogi Berra may have said, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. The Climate Central estimates could well be conservative as they only account for changes in sea level, which were used to adjust historic statistics on storm surges. This approach assumes that storm frequency and intensity remain constant. That was probably a necessary assumption to make a national study possible, but likely leads to an underestimate of the risk. The more detailed study of New York City published last month simulated changes in storm patterns as well as increases in sea level and found that both factors contributed to increasing New York’s flood risk.

Despite the inevitable uncertainties, local communities can and should use Climate Central’s powerful new mapping tool in planning, zoning, and infrastructure decisions. There is no longer an excuse not to be prepared.

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