Albert McKeon

Nov 14th 2017

Rising Sea Levels Trigger the Redesign of Coastal Communities


Destructive hurricanes like Harvey and Irma certainly get attention, but the threat of rising sea levels is an everyday concern for coastal populations.

While some corners of the world still debate the legitimacy of climate change, the governments of low-lying coastal cities aren’t waiting around, especially when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the non-profit environmental group Climate Central predicted that the U.S. faces an extreme sea-level rise of up to 12 feet by 2100.

Instead, public and private entities prepare for drastic upheaval by exploring natural and artificial technologies and new planning approaches that have the potential to combat flooding. Floating cities, living shorelines and other options might give coastal communities a fighting chance to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Disappearing Islands

Rising sea levels are the most striking example of the earth’s spiking temperature. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases have caused glaciers and massive ice sheets to melt and expand the depth of oceans. Most scientists concur that global warming will continue to accelerate the melting, but they don’t know how fast land ice will melt, and thus put coastal areas at risk of flooding.

Erosion and the outright depletion of land are the costs of more sea water. At least eight low-lying Pacific Ocean islands have vanished in the past 70 years, according to New Scientist. At the same time, coastal areas like Miami deal with an overflow of rain that can’t easily discharge into the Biscayne Bay, especially when the sea is at its highest level during the fall, causing “King” tides to simultaneously carry saltwater directly onto the streets, as the Miami Herald reported.

Reconfiguring and Building Anew

For cities directly in the path of a rising sea, taking an innovative approach to combating climate change isn’t the pursuit of a new aesthetic or a bold opportunity to make a profit but rather a calculated preparation for the worst nature has to offer.

Consider Miami. On a small but effective scale, city planners have embraced various technologies and approaches to properly plan for more water. The city intends to use 3D models to have a better sense of how to plan urban development around flood zones. Miami is also benefiting from grant money to participate in programs to improve permitting processes and storm water management, as well as pay for a chief resilience officer whose sole task is to create a comprehensive climate change strategy, according to GCN. Taking an even bolder approach, Miami looked at the possibility of tearing down properties and returning flood-susceptible areas to nature, the Miami Herald explained.

In French Polynesia, rising sea levels initiated the consideration of simply restarting civilization on a floating city. With many of its island coastlines eroding or at risk of disappearing, the government allowed the Seasteading Institute, a Silicon Valley enterprise, to explore the development of the world’s first self-sufficient floating city, the Huffington Post reported.

Aside from housing people, a floating city could serve as a hub for oceanographic and climate resilience research and implementation, including wave and tidal energy experiments and explorations into trapping atmospheric carbon on the sea floor, a Seasteading Institute executive told the Huffington Post.

Combating Change Naturally

For those who can’t afford the potential livable space cost of $504 per square foot on a floating city, other avenues are being considered to preserve some semblance of existing property. Natural or nature-based structures known as “living shorelines” aim to protect shores more inexpensively and more effectively than man-made bulkheads and walls. NOAA contended that shorelines with intact natural coastal habitats suffer less damage and bounce back more quickly from severe storms.

In 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a nationwide permit that lowers regulatory hurdles to build living shorelines, such as wetlands with sea and marsh grasses, sand dunes, mangroves and coral reefs.

Whether municipalities take incremental approaches by raising sidewalks, building natural recovery zones or restarting planning strategies, or if they boldly shoot for the moon by creating a floating city space, the time to address climate change has arrived in full force. Steps taken now will go a long way toward preserving the future.