Shore towns must prepare for even higher seas
Chip McLenna has noticed gradual changes over the years in Margate, with the bay seeming to be higher and tidal flooding occurring more often.
So when Hurricane Sandy sent several feet of water into his home, McLenna, 45, knew rebuilding would mean going higher.
"We plan on living here for some time," said McLenna, whose house was raised by 6 feet in February. "Our home has always had water around it. And it's certainly not going to diminish in the future."
Raising a house nearly a full floor may seem outlandish for people struggling to rebuild after Sandy. But rebuilding stronger also means planning for an uncertain future.
The higher elevations adopted as the state and federal standard for rebuilding may seem draconian now, but the new elevations - and other changes proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Advisory Base Flood Maps - are forming the baseline for how shore building will evolve over the next 50 to 100 years.
"When you think about the lifetime of a house, we have to think about how those risks are changing," said Anthony Broccoli, a climatology professor at Rutgers University. "By the middle of the 21st century, it will no longer take a storm of the magnitude of Sandy to produce substantial coastal flooding."
Politically, climate change has been the subject of intense debate, with some arguing that the Earth's climate is not warming and that changes in sea level and weather patterns already being felt are due to natural cycles.
But climate scientists say there's an ever-growing portfolio of proof that climate change is occurring, Broccoli said.
Weather vs. climate
Weather is what happens day to day. Climate is the overall picture: months of above-average temperatures, consecutive years with rainfall well above or below normal. Nine of the Top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Last year, was warmest on record for New Jersey and the planet.
What could climate change feel like? In 50 years, the summer weather along the Jersey Shore may feel more like the summer of today in coastal North Carolina, Broccoli said.
Climate change brings huge financial effects, too. Extreme weather could interrupt supply chains, affecting what's available in stores. Staple crops could fail, causing skyrocketing food prices. Utilities may have to repair lines more frequently because of bigger storms.
Single storms or events can't be blamed on climate change. But climate change increases the probability of more extreme storms. Tidal flooding will become more frequent due to sea-level rise, climate experts say.
Since 1900, the average sea level in Atlantic City has risen about 16 inches, about half of which can be attributed to global warming, said Ken Miller, a geology professor at Rutgers University.
Various projections, including those from Rutgers University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimate the average sea level around New Jersey could rise by an additional 1.2 feet by 2050 and more than 3 feet by 2100. The rate of rise has increased in the past 20 years and is predicted to accelerate.
That may not seem like much, but 1 foot will make the difference between minor flooding during a storm today and worse conditions in 37 years. A 1-foot rise in sea level would shut down the Black Horse Pike in West Atlantic City during twice daily high tides instead of during storms or full-moon tides. The 3-foot rise predicted would mean the average high tide would equal the storm tide from the October 2009 northeaster. During full and new moons, the water level would be similar to the storm tide from the March Storm of 1962, just without the wind.
If low-lying buildings are not raised, they could be flooded. Roads, if they've not been redesigned, will be inundated.
"Our projection for 2100 of over 3 feet (of rise) means that eventually, full retreat (from coastal areas) may be inevitable," Miller said. "But those days are not ours. They're going to belong to our grandchildren and great grandchildren."
Some of the Sandy rebuilding directives could be considered the first large-scale steps the state has taken since Gov. Chris Christie took office to prepare for the effects of climate change and sea level rise.
"I do give the governor a lot of credit for the adoption of the (FEMA) maps, because, otherwise, it would have been a really short-term decision," said John Miller, of the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management.
New Jersey has never mandated climate change adaptation planning, unlike in neighboring states. Work on the topic was ongoing prior to Christie taking office in 2010. His administration then dismantled programs that dealt with the issue. Economic growth in alternative energy became the focus, and work on coastal hazards was reduced.
Then Sandy struck. Christie advocated "rebuilding stronger and more resilient." Despite discussing climate change directly in 2011, Christie, since Sandy, now changes the subject. Criticism about Christie's lack of a climate change acknowledgement since Sandy has grown among environmental advocates.
"Everyone wants a big pronouncement on the mountain," Larry Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said of the criticism. "Whether you believe in climate change or not, the rebuilding of these communities is going to be done in a way that would incorporate climate change."
FEMA does not consider sea-level rise or future conditions as it develops flood insurance rate maps. But a 2012 memo noted the agency completed a two-year look at climate change's effects on the flood insurance program. The report found the number of policyholders would double by 2100, and 100-year flood plains would expand significantly.
Flood insurance regulations note that rate map elevations are the minimum and recommend homeowners exceed the standards by building at least 2 feet higher. In 2007, New Jersey adopted legislation requiring at least 1 foot above the minimum. After Sandy, some communities have gone farther, now requiring 3 feet above the minimum.
The DEP made permanent in March Christie's order to adopt FEMA's advisory base flood maps - and all subsequent map updates - as the state standard for rebuilding, plus 1 foot. While the outcry from residents and municipalities focused on the tough new standards, planning and environmental advocates warned the new requirements are not tough enough for the future.
Commissioner Bob Martin said DEP staff considered increasing the extra elevation requirement to 2 or even 3 feet above the new FEMA maps as they crafted the order. The agency decided to stick with the existing 1 foot requirement because officials felt new FEMA elevations were high enough, Martin said. "Even for future sea level rise, we felt it was enough."
Adapting for the future
In 2011, three storms - Irene, Lee and the Oct. 29 northeaster - caused extreme damage to infrastructure in northern New Jersey. The storms triggered utility PSE&G to partner with Rutgers University on a conference about climate adaptation.
What formed was an alliance among businesses, utilities and academia to study and develop policy for multiple layers of society, said Jeanne Herb, co-leader of the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance. Since Sandy, interest in the alliance's work has only grown, she said.
Sandy's effect on public transportation and the power grid was just the latest warning to many industries about the financial toll extreme weather can take, alliance co-leader Marjorie Kaplan said. "I think the message is starting to resonate here."
In January, the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee released its draft report for how climate change will affect the U.S. Among the findings: Regions and industries have different needs, and there is little money to implement plans.
Municipalities have had growing interest in learning about planning for climate change, and two websites were unveiled this year to help with the task, said Lisa Auermuller, watershed coordinator with the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve. One site, the N.J. Floodmapper, illustrates how rising seas will affect the coast.
The difficulty, Auermuller said, is how to plan on a time scale beyond what most local planning documents consider.
"Most often, decision-makers are reaching out to us," Auermuller said, "thinking in terms of election cycles, not long-term ecological cycles."
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