The Ocean is Rising. What Can You Do?

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy damaged hundreds of thousands of U.S. homes and caused billions of dollars in damage to vital infrastructure.

A lot of people think climate change is something happening somewhere else to somebody else. But for people in many U.S. coastal communities, climate change is causing a rise in sea level right now, right in front of them.

“We know that sea levels are rising and that coastal communities are becoming more vulnerable to extreme weather and climate-related events,” said Holly Bamford, a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and co-author of a recently published study about protections and barriers that can buffer seaside structures.

Erosion, extreme weather events and frequent flooding are already occurring. Nature protects the mainland from storm and coastal flooding with architecture of its own: salt marshes, oyster beds, coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, sand dunes and barrier islands. If left in place, natural barriers protect man-made structures from sea level rise.

Natural barriers can be recreated to protect human infrastructure, providing a storm buffer and a longer life to seaside buildings. Some communities are moving their sea walls farther from the ocean, allowing natural barriers to regain a foothold. Improvements to seaside structures can make them more resilient against a rising ocean, or communities may install sea walls or flood gates to protect buildings. These actions are even more effective when coupled with existing or recreated natural barriers.

No one solution will suit every coastal community, so potential solutions demand further research, the study finds. Still, the need to act is imperative. “In the face of climate change, it is critical to the health and prosperity of communities and the economy to think differently about managing and conserving U.S. shorelines,” the study says. About 40 percent of the U.S. population lives near a coast, and just under half of national economic activity occurs in these areas. Building resilience against climate change in those communities is a critical element of national policy.

Half the world population lives on or near a coast, so resilience strategies could be widely valuable, especially in the world’s many seaside cities. The United States is taking steps in many social and economic sectors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and move to a clean-energy economy.