Climate Crisis

Coastal Living is Costly and Crowded

Climate-change impacts heightened by our love of the coast


The coastal city of Milford, Conn., with a population of about 53,000, is vulnerable to sea-level rise and other climate-change impacts. Sitting on the shore of Long Island Sound, the city has some 4,000 structures in a floodplain. (city of Milford)

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Sun, surf and scenic views have long attracted crowds. But this decades-long march of people and accompanying infrastructure to the coast has come at a cost. A changing climate and rising seas are now charging interest.

“Watersheds have been dramatically changed by coastal-zone development and a greater human presence,” said Geoffrey Scott, chair of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “Coastal zones are places of profound change. There is pollution, and human-health impacts.”

Scott was one of five guest speakers who participated in the Metcalf Institute’s Annual Public Lecture Series, held the week of June 8 at the University of Rhode Island. He began his lecture by noting that 55 percent of the planet’s population lives in a coastal zone and 33 of the world’s 50 largest cities can be found on the coast.

That’s a lot of building pressure on fragile coastal areas.

In the United States, the impact is even more profound: 50 percent of the population lives on 11 percent of the land.

Fellow guest lecturer Benjamin Preston, deputy director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Climate Change Science Institute, said addressing this complex issue — economic development and population growth mixed with warming temperatures and more extreme weather — is difficult, and even more so in coastal communities, which are some of the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts.

“This concentration of population and wealth in hazardous landscapes is a significant driver of exposure and losses,” Preston said. “This isn’t about preventing the climate-change problem. This is about learning to live with it.”

That means learning to cope with some $10 billion, on average, lost annually to natural disasters in the United States. That amount will only continue grow, especially if humans continue to flood the coast with their presence and development. Those annual losses could amount to as much as $250 billion by 2100, according to Preston.

It also means dealing with roughly 35,000 beach advisories annually across the United States. Earlier this month in Rhode Island, the state Department of Health recommended the closure of Easton’s Beach in Newport, Peabody’s Beach in Middletown and Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett to swimming because of high bacteria counts.

Among the impacts being experienced in coastal areas are an increase in oxygen-depleting algae blooms, coral degradation and accelerated erosion.

“Protect tidal areas and you protect the rest of the estuary,” said Scott, noting that these vital areas are some of the most fragile and most polluted on the planet. “Tourism is a type of development. Our urban footprint is changing the landscape dramatically. Estuarine systems are being impacted by urbanization.”

Scott noted that a 1 percent increase in population generates a 5 percent increase in development — a footprint that increases the amount of impervious surfaces, exacerbates problems such as stormwater runoff and impacts water quality.

“Population growth and increased impervious cover are changing ecosystem function and services,” he said.

During his talk a day later, Preston spoke about adapting to climate change in terms of risk management. Extreme weather will certainly occur, he said, but the extent of the effects will be determined by exposure and vulnerability.

Preston used a pair of recent earthquakes to make his point. In April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, a country with an old building stock. A month later, an earthquake of the same magnitude hit Japan, which has strict building codes. Twelve people suffered minor injuries and businesses returned to normal a day later.

In the United States, he said, many states and municipalities, mostly those on either coast, are planning to deal with climate change, but just as many aren’t. He noted that dumping sand on a beach after a hurricane is not adaptation planning.

“Manipulating the environment to sustain the status quo is not adaptation planning,” Preston said, noting that the middle of the country, with the exception of Colorado, isn’t doing much with respect to climate-change planning. “Texas has no plan for the future or the present.”

But even in the places that have plans — Preston noted that Boston and New York City have done plenty of adaptation planning — the real challenge will come in trying to implement those “thousands upon thousands of pages of paper,” he said.

Implementation is hindered by an addiction to economic growth, corruption and special interests. This adherence to the status quo is expensive, but the cost is subjective.

“Continued development along the coast exposes more people and more development to extreme weather,” Preston said. “We keep getting whacked. Some say that is a function of economic growth and rebuild. Others say we need to get a handle on this problem. Different places care about different things and have different values. There’s a lot at play when it comes to coastal protections.”

Coastal adaptation options include retreat, increasing setbacks, hardened structures such as seawalls and riprap, rolling easements and buying vulnerable properties. Some of these options take more political will than others.

However, even when an adaptation practice is implemented, there is little to no followup, according to Preston.

“There’s not much watching of adaptation measures in play now,” he said. “We don’t do a good job of following the investments and measures implemented. How do we know if these investments are worth it?”

We don’t, really, and the reasons for that are pretty straightforward.

“Tougher decisions are much more challenging,” Preston said. “We like things the way they are. We don’t like to make sweeping changes. Until we shift where we can build or who bears the risk, the status quo will remain strong.”


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  1. The only economic growth in the eastern US now happening is stealing by the rich, so we might want to really get a move on coastal adaptation and reduction of greenhouse gases as those disasters will only be compounded by the destructive practices of the rich.

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