How Communities Can Find a Solution to Rising Sea Levels and Flooding

My friends living on or near the coast know I’m a hazards specialist, so sometimes they ask me why the roads in their cities are flooding more often than ever, even when no rain is falling. I tell them that today’s flood is tomorrow’s high tide — in other words, everyday tidal flooding is getting more frequent, severe, and long-lasting as sea levels continue to rise.

I live this reality in Charleston, South Carolina, where sea levels have risen roughly 12 inches in the past 100 years.

Whether you call this phenomenon coastal inundation or nuisance flooding, it’s causing traffic headaches, road hazards, and even saltwater damage to buildings in coastal communities throughout the U.S.

Unfortunately, neighbors and officials in some communities get stuck thinking about the enormity of the problem or else are too busy arguing about climate change to take action. It doesn’t have to be this way.

You and your neighbors — even folks on opposite ends of the climate change debate — can get unstuck and work together to make your community more flood-resilient.

Communicate, Don’t Alienate

Frightening your audience with nightmarish global statistics on climate change is a bad idea, plus it does not address the unique flooding hazards of your coastal town. Instead, present well-sourced local facts and sea level rise scenarios — and don’t forget to highlight the economic rewards of better flood resilience versus the big economic downside of doing nothing. That approach is more likely to attract the enlightened self-interest of local officials and the business and tourism sectors. A web-based training, Roadmap for Adapting to Coastal Risk, contains tips for getting that all-important community buy-in. Participants also learn how local plans and policies already on the books can help jump-start resilience actions.

Get a Picture of the Problem

A vivid, credible photo visualization that shows likely flooding in your town can get more attention from your audience than dozens of dry facts and charts. The Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer enables users to view local maps and simulations of flooding and sea level rise, plus facts on flood frequency, tide gauges, and future projections. Right now, the tool covers 12 U.S. coastal states and four territories. By the end of 2013 it will cover most of the coastal U.S.

Capitalize on Your Green Infrastructure

Cash-strapped local governments sometimes hesitate to move forward on flood-resilience plans because of concerns about the price tag. Recommend that your coastal officials take advantage of the area’s green infrastructure — that is, the benefits of its natural ecosystem — for a relatively low-cost, low-tech way to lessen flood risks. One green infrastructure approach: preserve low-development lands and add strategic landscaping to absorb and filter stormwater. A 3-hour course, Introducing Green Infrastructure for Coastal Resilience, goes deeper into the details.

You might not be able to stop today’s flood in your coastal town from becoming tomorrow’s high tide. But if you can picture the hazards and plan beforehand, your community will be better placed to weather the impacts.

How might a segment of Galveston, Texas, be affected by 6 feet of sea level rise? The Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer paints a picture.


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Doug Marcy

Doug Marcy works for the NOAA Coastal Services Center, which leads the Digital Coast effort to provide data, tools, and trainings to communities addressing complex coastal issues.

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