Rising Sea-Level an Unsung Threat to Coastal Area Critical Infrastructure

October 9th, 2014

By CHHS Research Assistant R. Justin Morris

In the past few years, the need for critical infrastructure protection from terrorist threats has been a talking point among politicians and security experts regularly. The discussion gained momentum last year after individuals attacked an electric power station in the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the fact that these individuals were found to have no affiliation with any terrorist organization, Congress and the media coverage nonetheless largely focused on the threat that terrorism presents. However, few on Capitol Hill have discussed the natural threats impacting our nation’s infrastructure now, and in particular the rise of sea levels that threaten the critical infrastructure of many cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Over the past 100 years, tidal waters have increased worldwide by eight inches. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, this increase is significantly higher than any other period in the past 2000 years, and since 1992 the increase rate has roughly doubled, suggesting an even higher acceleration of the rate. The National Climate Assessment, produced by a group of more than 300 experts in the field and a 60-member federal advisory committee, projects that by the year 2100 this increase will bump up to 11 inches, without even considering any additional melting of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. This low-ball estimate of three additional inches over the next decade may not sound like a lot, but such an increase of sea levels worldwide will have a significant impact on low-lying coastal areas, like many along the U.S. East Coast.

It should come as no surprise that the Florida Keys is one East Coast community at significant risk from sea level rising. Keys officials are stressing that a sustainability action plan to combat rising sea levels is necessary in order to ensure the long term viability of the vacation hotspot. The Florida Keys are ranked number 3 on the list of communities on the East Coast most at risk for population displacement due to sea level rising.

Other than low lying islands like the Keys, coastal cities with older infrastructure are predominantly at risk. In Annapolis, Maryland, for example, home of the U.S. Naval Academy, six inches of water or more flooded the historic colonial district on four different occasions this year, and business owners had to take measures to prevent their offices from taking in water. In Virginia, cities like Norfolk and Chincoteague have seen a dramatic increase in flooding as well. In the past fifty years, the Chincoteague-Assateague area has lost more than 100 yards of coastline, an astounding statistic. Additionally, in nearby Wallop Island, Virginia, NASA has invested over $140 million trying to fortify its Wallops Flight Facility, as it too has seen its shoreline decline at an alarming rate.  Finally, in Charleston, South Carolina, another historic port city, major highways flooded on several occasions this year due to rain runoff into the Atlantic, which impeded the functionality of law enforcement and hospitals in the area.

As evidenced by the flooding troubles on the East Coast, the U.S. already has a critical infrastructure threat affecting its communities, and it often gets overshadowed by more news-worthy risks like terrorism. Terrorist threats to our nation’s critical infrastructure are real and should be monitored and prepared for earnestly. However, natural threats, like rising sea levels, are just as concerning and are threats that are already impacting our communities. Future development and planning of critical infrastructure protection has to address the accelerating threat of coastal flooding in order to preserve our nation’s important port cities and coastal resources. Developing coastal defenses like seawalls, dikes and dunes, and beach nourishment (adding sand) are very important responses to this problem. However, it is more important that steps be taken to curb development in areas that are likely to be threatened by sea level rising in the future, and to gradually transport locations of critical infrastructure inland over time.

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