Sea Levels Sandy

The above images of Brigantine were taken at low tide at 11:29 a.m. May 21, 2009, at top, and at mid tide at 2:46 p.m. Nov. 5, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy.

Photo provided by U.S. Geological Survey

Hurricane Sandy did more than reshape New Jersey’s coastline and cause billions of dollars in damage.

The storm brought awareness of climate change and sea-level rise to the public and state officials charged with planning for a future with a higher risk of more extreme weather and more frequent tidal flooding.

“These are all things the storm is galvanizing,” said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which last month said it had no overreaching policy or plan examining the impact on the state or how the state should adapt to the coming changes. “I think we will need to take a look at where things stand. I can’t tell you at this point what we’re doing to shape the discussion, but clearly these are discussions we need to have, but in the context of a game-changing storm.”

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As New Jersey gradually shifts from the immediate recovery from Sandy’s destruction to planning how to rebuild, Gov. Chris Christie said earlier this month that state leaders will meet with national experts and consultants to find out what mistakes were made after other devastating storms across the country so that those mistakes are not repeated in New Jersey.

Among the major shifts in policy considerations and mind sets that occurred in the wake of Sandy was the state’s strategic development plan, which sets a blueprint for growth and development statewide.

The plan, which has faced severe criticism by environmental groups for not addressing sea-level rise and changes and increases in flood-prone areas, was set to be approved by the state Planning Commission on Nov. 13. But that action was delayed, partly because new revisions were made public just three days before the vote.

“It made sense for us to put it off and to reconsider it in light of some of the new challenges that have been presented by the storm and the aftermath of the storm,” Christie said during a Nov. 13 news conference, noting that the delay may or may not result in changes to the plan. “But what we know is, it would be kind of silly to go forward with a planning document when now the face of your state has changed pretty significantly in certain areas,” he said.

Global warming and global warming-fueled sea-level rise will magnify the probability of intensified erosion and more frequent storms along the entire New Jersey coast, according to numerous research studies and scientists. Inundation of tens of thousands of acres of tidal wetlands will occur during the next century, killing off critical habitat and buffers to storm tides. Communities along the entire New Jersey coast, including the barrier islands and bayside neighborhoods and towns, are on the front line.

It’s impossible to say that global warming caused a specific storm. What can be quantified is that about half of the one foot of sea-level rise that has occurred during the past 100 years can be directly attributed to human-caused global warming, said David Robinson, New Jersey State Climatologist and Rutgers University professor.

“You can say this surge was six inches, maybe a little more, than it would have been (with an identical storm) 75 to 100 years ago,” Robinson said. “To those people who had six inches of water in their homes, there’s the difference.”

Rising waters

Average sea level in South Jersey, including along the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, has risen about 9 inches since 1959, National Data Buoy Center records show. As global warming increases, researchers predict the average water level in the ocean and bays in South Jersey could rise as much as another 6 inches by 2030 and another 8 inches by 2050, said Benjamin Strauss, a Princeton-based climate scientist with Climate Central and co-author of multiple sea-level rise studies released this year.

According to another of Strauss’ studies released in June, New Jersey ranks fifth in the nation for largest population living on land less than four feet from the high-tide line, surpassed only by Florida, Louisiana, California and New York.

Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps last issued in 1983 are considered obsolete by many, and while the agency is slated to release new ones next year, Sandy’s impact likely will need to be incorporated, said Stewart Farrell, a Richard Stockton College professor and coastal sciences researcher.

FEMA’s flood maps are based on historical data, showing where flooding has occurred during previous storms, but do not incorporate changes in the future from climate change or sea-level rise, despite an executive order from President Barack Obama requiring federal agencies to develop climate change adaptation plans. FEMA said in a January memo that it had just finished a two-year look at climate change’s effects on the beleaguered and deeply indebted National Flood Insurance Program. The agency said in the memo that 100-year flood zones are “projected to increase significantly” and that the number of policy holders in the flood insurance program likely will double by 2100.

A study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science released in October found that the rate of sea-level rise in coastal areas from Cape Hatteras, N.C., north to New England, is occurring at a faster rate than much of the rest of the country.

And a study by scientists with Climate Central and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released in March noted that, by 2030, the probability of catastrophic coastal flooding from storms, worse than what occurred with Sandy, will triple.

The frequency of tidal flooding in the past 30 years in many of these communities has increased so significantly that earlier this month, the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly office announced it was changing its criteria for when it will issue minor flooding advisories. In 1982, the weather service said, it issued just two such advisories. In 2011, by comparison, 10 events occurred and all but six of the past 36 months have had a coastal flooding event, weather service meteorologist Gary Szatkowski said.

As the water rises, low-lying communities such as West Atlantic City, West Wildwood, Tuckerton, sections of Little Egg Harbor Township, sections of Stafford Township and parts of Brigantine, Atlantic City, Margate and Ventnor will see an ever-increasing water level, swamping wetlands and, eventually, roads, bridges and homes.


While there is a strong consensus among the scientific community that climate change effects are now being felt, the topic is mired with intense political debate, often falling along party lines both federally and at the state level.

“This issue is going to present unprecedented challenges for coastal states like New Jersey,” said Matthew Blake, manager of the American Littoral Society’s Delaware Bay office. “It’s something that we’re dangerously ill prepared for, and part of the reason is political.”

The topic is of such political contention that it did not enter the presidential race until Sandy struck days before the election. During President Barack Obama’s first post-election news conference, he discussed climate change with rare candor.

“We haven’t done as much as we need to. So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with,” Obama said last week.

Two weeks after Sandy struck, the DEP convened an invitation-only meeting for environmental advocates and stakeholders to discuss what the state’s priorities should be for rebuilding the coast and preparing for the future. American Littoral Society Executive Director Tim Dillingham was among those invited and said the environmental groups all urged the state to begin planning for bigger and more frequent storms.

“The fact that there is sea-level rise and there are more intense storms coming is really undisputed scientific fact, and the fact that the DEP did not want to tap on that doesn’t speak well to the way that they make policy,” Dillingham said. “But now the challenge to the Christie administration is how to act on it. You can’t simply be rebuilding everything that was there. That’s simply a recipe for us setting up for it happening all over again.”

The state strategic plan had been touted by the Christie administration for months as an “economic blueprint” that focused on where growth should occur, a theme that was nearly the opposite of the existing plan, that focuses on land use, planning and rules for where growth should not occur.

Dillingham said the Christie administration long has said the state should not be in the role of deciding land use or growth management.

“The destruction of the storm told them they do need to be involved in those (decisions), if only to make their infrastructure decisions and their investment decisions with an eye toward the concerns of exposing the communities to future storms,” Dillingham said. “They have an opportunity to reshape the state strategic plan to deal with very real issues, which we got a hard lesson again two weeks ago.”

Adapting to a changing world

As of last month, various state agencies in New Jersey were examining climate change and sea-level rise as they pertain to independent issues, but there is no overreaching look at how communities will need to adapt to a changing environment.

Nearby states such as New York, Delaware and Maryland either have or have recently released management outlooks on what to expect from public health and safety, development investments and ecological effects due to climate change and sea-level rise.

Those states, unlike New Jersey, are mandated by their governments to include adaptation for climate change and sea-level rise in their long-term planning, said Jeanne Herb, co-leader of the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance and a research program administrator at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

Recognizing the holes in state policy and business and development practices was the purpose of a conference at Rutgers University a year ago that ultimately formed a statewide partnership of academic, municipal, advocacy, public health and safety and business stakeholders. Conference participants decided there was no need for a large organization, Herb said, but said there was a need for networking within key sectors, including public planning, emergency response, utilities, transportation and development.

Private industry was the trigger for the Rutgers conference, as it was spearheaded by the utility PSE&G, which is seeing an uptick in long-term power outages caused by extreme weather events.

The conversations taking place within the alliance cross sectors and mix policy with practical solutions, said Herb, who helps administer the newly formed New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance.

“The thing about this concept behind the alliance is it’s not just a tree-hugger thing, it’s not just a public health thing, it’s not just a coastal thing,” she said. “We’re hearing from folks that this kind of unique approach may actually result in actions and strategies ... by the people actually implementing them.”

Bringing those discussions farther south, however, has proved difficult. Last spring, Rutgers held a one-day conference at its Tuckerton field station designed for municipal officials to begin thinking about planning for the effect of climate change. The conference was open to the public, said spokesman Ken Branson, and while there were multiple attendees from Monmouth and Ocean counties, no municipal or county official from Atlantic, Cape May or Cumberland counties attended.

Among the major assessments that need to be undertaken, Blake said, are looking into planning and trickling new policy into the zoning code in vulnerable places, including coastal and flood plain development.

“We cannot keep putting zoning and infrastructure and public dollars and public investments in places that are increasingly becoming more vulnerable to storms,” he said. “If we keep making decisions like that in a state that’s broke, we’re not going to have the money to do the projects that do make sense and do matter.”

Contact Sarah Watson:


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