Can We Really Play Defense Against Rising Seas? And Should We?

From Manhattan to Tuvalu, the inevitability of rising sea levels is the talk of the town.

Coming to a coastline near you: rising sea levels. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty)

Sep 3, 2013· 3 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Last year, during my almost-annual visit to French Polynesia, giant storms raked the islands, sending floodwaters rushing over the thin strips of sand that are home to thousands. To escape the rising sea levels, locals climbed radar towers at the airport and put babies in Styrofoam coolers. Like so many people around the globe, thanks to warming seas and skies, these islanders are getting more and more used to nasty storms and floods and knew where to find higher ground.

Everywhere you look, it seems, coast-dwellers are keeping a weather eye out these days. The U.S. is in the midst of hurricane season, and the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is rapidly approaching. Coastal communities the world over are trying to predict the future and plan for more storms (like this New Jersey town that wants to “elevate” itself 11 feet).

And the upcoming U.N. report on climate change—which leaked last month—certainly did nothing to alleviate the concerns of those living near the coasts. It predicts that sea levels around the planet will rise by three feet by 2100. Given the increased variability’s of winds and currents and superstorms, such an increase will put 1,700 cities at risk of superfloods and render vast stretches of coastline around the world unlivable.

Shouldn’t the real goal now be to move away from coastlines rather than try and construct them higher? A fantastic National Geographic cover story details the hows and whys of sea level rise and why we should all be very, very concerned.

In the meantime, communities continue plans to go higher:

—Along the coastal stretches of luxe Greenwich, Connecticut, homeowners are literally jacking their homes up off the ground and putting them on stilts. I guess the idea is that raging storm waters will run beneath their multi-million dollar homes rather than through them. But at a cost of $300,000, such measures are perhaps beyond the pale for most. Meanwhile, Greenwich is among the first U.S. towns to adopt revised flood maps created by FEMA, which predict fiercer storm surges and wave action along the Eastern seaboard. Once FEMA has made these new predictions (and within the next four years it will have provided new flood maps for 350 counties) it’s either prepare your domicile or see flood insurance rates climb through the roof. No flood insurance, no mortgage. (It’s not just the East Coast; in Louisiana it is hard, if not difficult, to get a standard 30-year mortgage for a house south of Interstate 10 because bankers don’t believe the southern third of the state will be livable thanks to higher seas.

—Similar “risings” are set to happen all along Long Island too. In order to protect an estimated 4,000 homes in flood-prone neighborhoods, the federal government is planning to spend $700 million to restore the battered dunes and raise houses along the 83-miles from Fire Island to Montauk. Money is to come from the $51 billion that Congress set aside for Sandy reparations. Will raising houses off the ground five to 10 feet, either building them on stilts or constructing new, “breakaway” walls, really work? I have seen communities in the islands of Polynesia increasingly build schools, hospitals and community centers atop cement blocks, using the same theory. But I’ve also still seen folks hightail it for even higher ground when big, flooding storms come. The notion of land swaps in Long Island—homeowners trading coastal properties for public lands on higher ground—would seem to make a lot more sense.

—On the opposite side of the country, planners in San Francisco are drawing up what they’re calling the Golden Gate Barrage, a massive system of dams, locks and pumps (one of the most expensive building projects in the history of civil engineering) that would keep hundreds of square miles of Bay Area from flooding. The fact that the bulk of hi-tech America’s corporate HQs are in the region—from Google and Facebook to Lockheed Martin and NASA—may have something to do with the far-fetched plan being taken seriously. Similar considerations are underway in New York, Boston, and even Houston and its coastal gateway of Galveston, which would lose 10 percent of its livable land if sea levels rise by three feet and more than half if they rise by four feet.

Back in the islands, where the consequences of rising sea levels are even more immediate, the Pacific Island Forum gets underway today, September 3, in the Marshall Islands. Members include Pacific island states as big as Australia and New Zealand and as small as Tuvalu. For the smaller islands, building houses on stilts and spending tens of millions of dollars they don’t have are not options. Evacuation is the only solution. On the eve of the weeklong meeting, the head of the World Wildlife Fund New Zealand was quoted as saying the IPCC’s new predictions means many countries will literally be “wiped off the map.”