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Increasing the Resilience of Our Coasts: Coastal Collision Course of Rising Sea Level, Storms, Coastal Erosion and Development

Bruce C. Douglas and Stephen P. Leatherman

More and more people are living near ocean and estuarine coasts. Coastal watershed counties are home to about 50 per cent of the US population, and 29 per cent of the US population lives in areas subject to the effects of sea level rise. It seems that everyone wants a waterfront view, and beachfront property has become some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Small beach cottages have given way in recent decades to luxurious multistory houses, and in South Florida some high-rise condominium complexes are approaching US$500 million valuations. The 'Gold Coast' of Florida alone, which runs along the southeastern coast between Palm Beach and Miami, has an appraised value exceeding US$1.3 trillion. At the same time, the coast is facing a number of threats. Hurricanes are a regular occurrence along the East and Gulf coasts of the US: during the 20th century, 167 tropical storms made landfall. In addition to the problems arising directly from coastal construction in areas where storms are routine, increasing sea level results in coastal erosion and wetlands loss. The result is that fixed structures are increasingly exposed to storm waves and surges (see Figure 10.1).

Hurricanes in recent years have been more active than average; some investigators1 attribute the heightened activity to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), while Mann and Emanuel (2006) and others argue that global warming is making hurricanes more powerful. In any case, the increase of hurricane activity combined with the tremendous amount of coastal construction during the last few decades has greatly increased weather-related damage costs. According to the National Science Board (2007):

Hurricane-induced economic losses have increased steadily in the U.S. during the past 50 years, with estimated annual total losses (in constant 2006 dollars)

Figure 10.1 Storm damage on the south shore of Long Island: Narrow beaches enable storm wave energy to reach fixed structures

Source: International Hurricane Research Center (IHRC), Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

averaging $1.3 billion from 1949-1989, $10.1 billion from 1990-1995, and $35.8 billion per year during the last 5 years. The 2005 season was exceptionally destructive, with Hurricane Katrinapushing annual damage loss over the $100 billion mark for the first time since records began. Added to this financial cost is the intolerable and unnecessary loss of life associated with hurricanes — 196 individuals perished from 1986—1995 and approximately 1,450 were lost in the past two years alone.

Wind and flood damage from hurricanes are not the only issues for coastal residents. Along the US West Coast, winter storms, the impacts of which are made worse on occasion by the periodic El Niño events that tend to elevate sea level, pound the coastline with waves and cause significant erosion. On the US East Coast, a great nor'easter can cause more erosion in a few days than many previous decades of normal erosion, with devastating impact upon coastal properties. In addition to storm-induced erosion, there is an underlying long-term background rate of erosion that is almost certainly related to sea level rise (Leatherman et al, 2000; Zhang et al, 2004). In total, erosion is affecting almost 90 per cent of the nation's sandy beaches. With many new buildings increasingly located right near the coast, it is not surprising that damage costs from hurricanes and winter storms has been rising.

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