Red, Yellow, Green Light and Rising Sea Levels

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Nikki Gautreau- Pre-Veterinary Studies

Codie Laplante- Turfgrass Management

Cassandra Zawadzki- Environmental Science

Plum Island:

The beaches on Plum Island are closed to the public, but there is still a lot of activity along the shoreline. Heavy machinery hurl boulders in front of several seaside properties to create a barrier from the sea.

We are out here doing our best to save our homes, said Steve Batchelder. You lose your house in a fire, but still have the land to build on… Here the problem is you’re losing the land to build on and the home itself. (Cited in Alesse, 2013, para. 3)

Steve Batchelder is an example of someone who will lose his valuable property to sea level rise. Steve resides on Plum Island, an island off the coast of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Due to the impact of past few winters, the island experienced a substantial amount of soil erosion and flooding. He struggles with the decision to cut his losses and move his vacation home inland, or to fight the tide. Batchelder chose to invest in repairs for now but he states, “There’s going to be a time when it’s just not going to make sense,” (Cited in Alesse, 2013, para. 12).  Eventually the cost of remediation will outweigh the cost of starting over.

Steve Batchelder directly experienced the impacts of sea level rise an will continue to battle this phenomenon if adaption methods are not implemented. Sea level rise is directly associated with climate change and is amplified by the burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gasses (Nicholls & Tol, 2006). These increasing temperatures accelerate the melting of ice caps and sheets, thus raising sea levels on a global scale. The only way to completely mitigate rising sea levels is to find a solution to climate change, along with its detrimental consequences. However, this is not a feasible option in the near future. Thus we must adapt to rising sea levels immediately.

Why Sea Level Rise?

Humans can adapt to warmer climates as we have technological advances such as air conditioners to keep us cool. Certain food sources may be more difficult to grow in a dry and arid climate, but we can overcome these challenges with GMO’s and other scientific progressions in food development. As temperatures increase we will be prepared because we can escape the rising temperatures in our air conditioned buildings, along with having more sophisticated food sources to maintain our population (Nicholls & Tol, 2006). Through these methods the human population can overcome the temperature increase aspect of climate change. However, many of our cities are located on the coasts, and are in immediate danger of being overtaken by rising sea levels. Sea level rise will happen in the near future and is predicted to have the greatest impact on humans in the next 200 years (Nicholls & Tol, 2006).

Sea level rise will be most detrimental to humans in the coming century with 139 of our greatest cities sitting by the water’s side (Wong et al., 2014, p. 381). With growing socioeconomic development in cities, the expected population exposed to the dangers of a 100 year flood will increase from 270 million people in 2010 to 350 million people by 2050 (Wong et al., 2014, p. 381). Flooding, as a result of invading water, along with the ocean’s intrusion into the coasts will be the greatest factor of climate change that we cannot overcome. There is no way to escape it and if nothing is done, our famous cities will be underwater along with the millions that live in them.  Moreover, sea level rise is going to have the greatest impacts on human society and economy and therefore human adaptation methods must be implemented based on urgency.


Economic Impacts of Sea Level Rise:

Undoubtedly, sea levels have risen in the past century and the likelihood of destruction in our cities is increasing.  If the impacts of climate change continue, eventually tremendous damage will occur.  This creates a question, is it worth taxpayers dollars to install preventative tactics to save our cities from major flood damage? If a major flooding event occurs, the state often spends millions of dollars of its own money along with millions/billions of federal relief to correct the damages. One could argue sea level rise is not a fast enough process to utilize federal money for prevention methods. However, if we work with sea level rise, adaptation methods alone would be enough to protect particular areas.

Many people are not worried about the future impacts of sea level rise, especially economically. The economic impacts of sea level rise were not considered when the Jumeirah Palm Island, an artificial island was constructed in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. An estimated 6.5 billion dollars was spent to construct this sand and rock island off the coast of Dubai (Sochacka & Batko, 2014, p. 6). It took five years of dumping sand into the ocean to create this island and it’s predicted to increase tourism by attracting 20,000 visitors each day (Sochacka & Batko, 2014, p. 6). In a projected risk and value management assessment, there was no mention of sea level rise on the impacts of such an elite project (Sochacka & Batko, 2014, p.6).  The evaluation was directed toward costs of construction and management along with supply and demand. Evidently, 6.5 billion dollars has been spent on an assumption that sea level rise will not be a cause of destruction. With plans to expand, Jumeirah managers still do not understand the potential impacts of sea level rise in the next couple hundred years.

Major investors are not the only ones affected by sea level rise. People all over the world could be in danger if this trend continues. Yoskowitz, Gibeaut and McKenzie, (2009) explains how sea level rise will affect those who presently reside at sea level.  They state:

Sixteen of the worlds twenty mega-cities and over 10 million people are at sea-level, thus vulnerable to sea level rise; storm surges; salinization of freshwater aquifers and coastal soil; and disrupted storm water drainage and sewage disposal. (Yoskowitz et al, 2009, p.10)

This quote shows how over 10 million people will be affected by rising sea levels, thus we must start implanting adaption mechanisms now.

Additionally, income from tourism will take an economic toll once sea levels rise. Beach vacations are preferred by 60% of Europeans and such getaways accumulate 80% of the money U.S. citizens spend on vacation (Wong et al., 2014, p. 384). Over 100 countries rely on their coral reefs to bring in an income, and this tourism accumulates $11.5 billion in travel expenditures globally (Wong et al., 2014, p. 384). If beaches and coral reefs are no longer in existence, the globe will face an economic toll due to a lack of tourism.

Disturbances in oceans can cause major storm surges that could wipe out millions of dollars in property.  Hurricane Sandy wiped out approximately $50 billion worth of property in New York. Only $10 billion was covered by private insurances and the rest from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act. This act allows the federal government to utilize a $50 billion assistance package for storm related damages (Henry et al, 2013 p. 7). When federal tax dollars is used to this extent we should worry about a potentially dramatic increase in taxes and insurance costs. These types of changes may seem too distant in our futures to worry about; however, even a slight increase in sea level will lead to further encroachment of the ocean and more intense storms resulting in extreme flooding.

As we have already seen, extreme weather events such as Irene, Katrina and Sandy have become more frequent and detrimental. With higher sea levels, the storms have an easier path inland. With each storm the U.S. spends millions restoring the damages, and with more on the way, the economy will be negatively impacted.  Moreover, money will be lost due to standstills in the economy from the temporary shutdown of everyday life after a great storm hits. After Sandy, the port of New York was closed for a week causing 50 billion dollars worth in economic damages (Wong et al., 2014, p. 383). Damage done to Mississippi’s port due to Hurricane Katrina cost the U.S. over $100 million dollars (Wong et al., 2014, p. 383). With so many of our cities on the coasts, the next big hurricane will be detrimental to the people and to the economy to fix the damages. Higher water levels along with more severe weather events will put the U.S. in a vicious cycle of build, fix, and repeat. If adaption methods are not implemented, billions of dollars will continue to be lost to this cycle.

Societal Impacts Caused by Sea Level Rise:

With rising sea levels will come social distress. Already thousands of people have paid to resolve issues with inundation, the act of water intrusion into unwanted places, such as basements. Substantial amounts of property loss will occur. People may need to relocate if adaption methods are not put forth and followed. It is projected that “72 to 187 million people would be displaced due to land loss due to submergence and erosion by 2100” (Wong et al., 2014, p. 382). People also may not want to relocate, even though their property will become undesirable.

The Pacific Islands, located between Hawaii and Australia are fighting to stay above sea level. Christopher Loeak, the president of the Marshall Islands states “The Pacific is fighting for its survival as climate change has already arrived” (Cited in Vidal, 2013, para. 2). These islands are suffering massive amounts of erosion, higher storm surges and extreme flooding. This has lead to contamination of fresh water supplies, along with destroying farmland. The president was forced to buy 2,000 hectares of land from Fiji to grow food for the island (Vidal, 2013, para. 5). Political leaders predict, “this country will likely become uninhabitable between 30 and 60 years from now because of inundation and contamination of its freshwater supplies” (Cited in Vidal, 2013, para. 4).

The risk of waterborne diseases greatly increases with the availability of more water, “Increased saline intrusion is linked to increased hypertension disease, this has even greater occurrence in pregnant women living in coastal regions compared to further inland” (Wong et al., 2014, p. 385). With more water the risk of malaria, dengue and leishmaniasis also increase (Wong et al., 2014). Seawater infiltration will contaminate freshwater systems that humans rely on for everyday activities, including drinking water. Salt-water infiltration also effects coastal land, food production and ecosystem health and freshwater supply (Wong et al., 2014). People will panic when their underground aquifers become contaminated with salt water. An example of this can be seen in the people residing in the Pacific Islands. These islands have been hit hard over the years and are facing extreme fresh water contamination. During storms fresh water is contaminated with sea water, and due to limited fresh water supplies people are required to survive on less than a liter of water per day (Vidal, 2014). Water is an essential nutrient for people, and thus has caused panic throughout the island.

There is also a connection between flooding and post-traumatic stress disorder,

In Australia, it has been found that extreme events such as floods, drought, and bushfire can lead to mental suffering, including post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting in the need for psychological support and counseling … drought can increase suicide rates by 8%. (Noble et al., 2014, p. 841)

This quote shows sea level rise could also effect people emotionally, increasing the need for psychiatric care. People will live in constant fear, as at any moment there could be a weather event that floods their home, sweeps away their car or completely submerges their house. An example of this is the intensive devastation caused by severe weather events on Plum Island, over the past few winters. Residents house are literally being engulfed by the Atlantic Ocean, and they are forced to make the difficult decision of rebuilding or relocating.



Along with learning how to deal with these rises, successful human adaptation can slow the effects of sea level rise (Nicholls & Tol, 2006).  The amount of adaptation needed will depend on the potential and actual risks of a given area (Nicholls & Tol, 2006).  For this paper we created three different types of adaptation methods. There are the red zones, the areas in immediate danger due to rising sea levels. Yellow zones are areas scientists predict rising sea levels will occur more slowly, thus they have more time to adapt and try to protect their homes and business. Lastly, green zones will not be impacted directly by rising sea levels as they are not located on the coasts, but will be indirectly affected.

Red zones must take immediate action to prepare for rising sea levels, as they will be impacted as early as 2080 (Nicholls & Tols, 2006, p. 1089). Strauss (2013) claims the state most at risk is Florida, followed by Louisiana, New Jersey, California and North Carolina. These states have many cities located just above or below sea level, which will make protecting these areas more difficult. Settings such as these “have the lowest ability to adapt … due to their area to coastal length ratio” (Nicholls & Tol, 2006, p. 1092).  Nicholls and Tol (2006) suggest the millions of people residing in these areas will one day have to relocate.

The best way to deal with red zone areas is to begin relocating its residents, however, we understand this may not be the most feasible option (Nicholls and Tol, 2006). If relocation is not possible, then a city must begin adapting now to protect their assets. To begin, drainage systems must be reconstructed. Karl Havens (2015) is the director of the Florida Sea Grant, and he argues many of Southern Florida’s drainage systems are beginning to fail.  This can be seen in various flood control structures that remove rainwater by gravity. With higher levels of salt water than upstream freshwater, the system fails as the freshwater cannot flow into the ocean. Levies are naturally or artificially created ridges designed to catch floodwater and must also be updated and implemented. Officials must also start building up the shorelines with seawalls to protect residents from the waves (Havens, 2015). To combat the erosion, setbacks, which are buffer zones between hazardous areas and coastal developments, must be created to help save the land of various houses and historical landmarks (Havens, 2015). These mechanisms will help deal with sea level rise along with increased flooding from more severe weather events.

As the sea level begins to increase, areas at the greatest risk due to sea level rise such as Miami should start converting their land into small islands. These islands would bring in large revenue from tourism, and be sustainable through floating gardens. Floating gardens are gardens built on top of the water using water hyacinth plants. Hyacinths are at the base for the garden, followed by sticks of bamboo (Jena, 2015). On top of the bamboo is another layer of Hyacinths plants, followed by a layer of dirt, compost and cow dung (Jena, 2015). The crops are planted on top and will provide more food to people living in these island communities (Jena, 2015). These gardens will not be affected by the increased soil salinity or land lost due to erosion as they are located on the ocean (Jena, 2015). Floating gardens such as these were a great success in Bangladesh, and will also be successful in these island communities.

“Ignoring [sea level rise] will only lead to more costly and complex decisions in the future and cause greater harm to our people and our economy” (Havens, 2015, para. 17). Havens (2015) argues between now and 2100, floods that happen every 100 years are projected to start happening every 50, then every 20, then every 5 years, until large areas of coastal Florida are underwater (para. 7). For this reason, states in the red zone must start implementing these adaptation mechanisms now. They must begin by updating drainage systems, and as sea levels rise begin implementing the smaller islands along with the floating gardens. However, all these structures come with the risk of one day all being under water. Florida can spend billions of dollars implementing these procedures, but they should be aware these mechanisms are only prolonging the problem because one day Florida will be underwater. As the seas continue to rise there may become a point where these adaptation mechanisms will become too costly and ineffective to make economical sense and relocation will have to be implemented.

Yellow zones have more leeway as rising sea levels are expected to impact them in the next 100-150 years.  States in the yellow zone include Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia and they have more time to adapt to the rising sea levels (Strauss, 2013). They can start by implementing surge barriers and flood wise buildings. These barriers would help to protect against storm surges and backwater effects from rivers (Nicholls & Tol, 2006, p. 1075). Companies are beginning to construct flood safe buildings, which are comprised of interlocking metal sheets and are built higher above the ground than conventional buildings to prevent water from entering.  Drainage systems should also be updated to deal with “rising water tables and impeded drainage” (Nicholls & Tol, 2006, 1075). Management plans must address issues such as wetland loss and land change in order to protect and combat these problems (Nicholls & Tol, 2006). Setback buffer zones can also be created to help protect infrastructures. Though these renovations will be costly, they are necessary to help combat rising sea levels in order to help protect people, along with the homes they reside in from the inevitable effects of sea level rise (Nicholls & Tol, 2006).

With these various improvements the states in the yellow zone will not have to relocate. Theoretically they are not in danger of being submerged underwater in the next 100-150 years, but they are expected to see an increase in flooding. To help combat the adverse side effects of flooding, states should begin implementing these mechanisms now. By updating drainage systems and constructing more flood resistant buildings, these areas will not have to relocate due to rising sea levels (Nicholls & Tol, 2006, p. 1075).

Green zones are areas not directly impacted by rising sea levels, such as Nebraska and Kansas in part because they are not located on the coastlines (Strauss, 2013). People living in green zones may not care about rising sea levels, as they are not directly impacted. However, in the future they may indirectly deal with rising sea levels through the relocation of people from coastal areas. The less populated states will become more populated. This will cause a variety of cascading events such as increased competition for jobs and resources among flood refugees and local residents. The people residing in the green zones should push for advocacy in implementing adaptation mechanisms on the coast to avoid relocating millions into their already established towns.

These people should also be concerned because their federal taxes will go towards national relief efforts to save millions of coastal communities. Nicholls and Tol (2006) estimate that millions of federal taxpayers dollars will be spent on adaptation mechanism, thus every American should be concerned about rising sea levels whether they live on the coastlines or in the inner states (p. 1089). FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “estimates that ‘a dollar spent on [pre-disaster] mitigation saves society an average of $4’ in lower damages” (Weiss & Weidman, 2013, para. 20). Therefore it is in all federal taxpayers interest to support adaptation mechanisms, as it will save them money in the long run.

Not only will these Americans have to pay for relief of everyone on the coasts but also they will soon be responsible for the food production for coastal cities. With the predicted salt water inundation into the underground freshwater supply, many crops will not grow in these increased salinity states. Each crop has a salt tolerance threshold and going over it causes plants cells to dehydrate and die (Hannink, 2005). If coastal cities do not implement floating gardens using hyacinth plants that have a high salinity tolerance, then green zone states will be forced to produce food for coastal cities. This will increase the cost of food for coastal cities due to the distance of transport and decreased availability of food. If the coastal states do not implement adaptation methods, the inner states will soon have to grow food for them, help pay to fix damages and eventually house them.


Act Now:

For some reason people are not taking action against sea level rise; not because they don’t know how to fix the problem, but because they don’t see it being an immediate threat. This may be because there is a disconnect time wise as this destruction is predicted to happen in the near future. Climate change will always be an ongoing issue and it will take years for everyone to agree on a correct mitigation method. 98% of scientists agree climate change is happening, but many people, especially politicians are still skeptical of climate change (Weiss & Weidman, 2013). At the moment America does not have a plan to deal with climate change or rising sea levels. However, sea levels are rising now and many people are in great risk of losing their homes in the next 100-150 years or less. Sea level rise will wreak havoc on our economy along with causing social distress. Therefore humans must adapt now to help save homes, historical landmarks and more. Adaption methods vary depending on the severity of expected sea level rise, but if adaptation methods are not implemented in the near future, there will be irreversible damage throughout the world.


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