The debate over climate change and its impact on the planet has become a politically divisive topic in the United States, rankling U.S. allies and stalling legislative agendas.
But for people living on the coast, there is no debate. Climate change is real, and it is going to affect everyone living in the area — specifically on the barrier islands.
While some federal politicians continue to posture, local officials are preparing best practices and procedures to deal with stronger storms and rising sea levels.
The trick is grappling with projections and planning for the future, while not burdening the local tourism economy with damaging regulations and policies.
“Some people believe that we should take all development off the barrier beach islands,” said John Peterson, director of regional planning and development in Atlantic County. “It’s a couple hundred years too late. It’s a great idea, but it’s too late.”
According to a 2016 report by Rutgers University and the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance, New Jersey coastal areas will experience sea-level rise between 1 foot and 1.8 feet by 2050, even if greenhouse gas emissions are cut back. Sea-level rise after 2050 depends on the amount of emissions.
If nothing is done to slow emissions, it’s likely the sea will rise between 2.4 and 4.5 feet by 2100, according to the report. A worst-case scenario is sea-level rise of 10 feet in New Jersey, but the chance of that happening by 2100 is less than 1 percent, even if no action is taken on emissions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, founded in 1988 with support from the United Nations, projects the frequency of hurricanes hitting New Jersey will not increase. However, maximum wind speeds and precipitation amounts are expected to go up.
“There is pretty much a consensus around the globe that this is an important thing,” said Marjorie Kaplan, associate director of the Rutgers Climate Institute and one of the authors of the report. “In New Jersey ... there’s not a consistent approach to dealing with it (across municipalities), and there’s no mandate that they do.”
Partly that is because officials in New Jersey have only a wide range of projections off which to base decisions.
Peterson said while they know the sea level is rising, there has yet to be a concrete observation of what that rate is and how quickly it will rise in the future.
In the past 20 years, the sea level has risen two-tenths of an inch per year. At that rate, the high tide will be 2 inches higher in 10 years than it is now, he said.
“There’s an assumption that it’s going to accelerate with the global changes, but we really don’t know,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to diversify our economy and bring people back to (Atlantic County) ... We don’t need people saying the county is going to be underwater in 20 years, when it’s not.”
Still, officials up and down New Jersey’s coast have been preparing for rising seas and stronger storms by building stronger infrastructure. Many of these projects started as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
A statewide dune project on New Jersey’s beaches has made its way to South Jersey. Work is underway on Absecon Island. The dunes, along with new bulkheads, are to protect the island’s cities from flooding during major storms.
Building the dunes is totally funded by the federal government.
Atlantic City Electric has taken steps to increase resiliency by installing new, metal telephone poles to replace aging wooden poles. The company also has been involved in installing microgrids, small electrical grids with their own backup power sources.
Earlier this month, the state Board of Public Utilities awarded $2 million to 13 local entities to conduct studies on how a microgrid could help them during a storm. Among them were Atlantic City, the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority and Galloway Township, which each received $175,000 for this study.
There are 50 microgrids in New Jersey, including the thermal-energy district in Atlantic City that provides heat, cooling and emergency power to casinos and other facilities.
“A lot of the emphasis coming from the state is for infrastructure like hospitals, police stations and utilities,” Atlantic County Engineer Mark Shourds said. “We’re creating a resiliency template for municipal master plans and incorporating resiliency standards in there.”
In Atlantic City, the Baltic Avenue Canal is being repaired decades after it first started malfunctioning. When completed, the canal will mitigate city flooding by 75 to 80 percent.
From the federal government, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has secured millions in federal grants for communities with flooding issues, including North Wildwood and Wildwood for flooding on Pacific Avenue.
LoBiondo, R-2nd, has consistently broken party lines when it comes to acknowledging climate change. In March, he introduced a resolution that called on lawmakers to accept that climate change is real and poses a serious threat to the country.
The resolution was never posted for a vote.
Back in Atlantic County, Peterson said the rate of sea-level rise is the key for future planning.
“From what we see now, we can do things to increase resiliency,” Peterson said. “We can raise facilities up, we can raise houses higher ... and you’re seeing that now. I expect that to continue in the future.”