Coordinated Action Needed to Face Sea-Level Rise, Experts Say

Kirstin Dow, a 2016-2017 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow, discussed the efforts being made by communities in North and South Carolina to adapt to the effects of sea-level rise during a session at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum. | MARK F. JONES/CJVISIONS.COM

With rates of sea-level rise along parts of the nation’s Eastern seaboard increasing three to four times faster than the global average, experts are working to mitigate the effects by identifying threats, organizing collaboration among governments and organizations, as well as examining better communication techniques.

The efforts were discussed during a panel at the 2017 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum on March 27 at the Reagan Building in Washington.

Kirstin Dow was named a 2016-2017 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Public Engagement Fellow and works with the Carolina Integrated Sciences and Assessments Team, which studies the impact of climate forces in North and South Carolina to aid local decision making. She discussed the process of adaptation to sea-level rise and highlighted the progress made in the two states.

“We’re finding that most communities are still at the stage of identifying the threats,” said Dow, adding that few have reached the implementation phase.

Still, she said, in the Carolinas action has been taken in response to sea-level rise. Dow noted, for instance, that the community of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina is responding to flooding by installing backflow flaps on stormwater drains, preventing saltwater runoff from flooding the yards of residents.

Dow also pointed to activities taken by officials at Folly Beach, South Carolina, an island which has faced erosion due to changing sea levels. In response, the community has decided to control population density in the area through limits on coastal construction.

“This is a hard-fought battle, you can imagine, for development on the coast of this beautiful beach,” Dow said.

Efforts to address sea-level rise in other parts of the Atlantic coast were also discussed during the event. Ray Toll, of Old Dominion University, cited an intergovernmental pilot program he convened to respond to changes in sea level in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

The project aims to coordinate existing actions being taken at various levels of government, as well as in communities and the private sector, to develop a strategy that addresses the major impacts of sea-level rise. These include tidal flooding and the increased magnitude and frequency of storm surges.

The situation is becoming increasingly dire for military bases in this area, according to a 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The analysis found that, of the nine military installations along the mid-Atlantic coast, four would likely lose 10% or more of their land to sea-level rise by 2050. In the area surrounding the Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval installation in the world, sea-levels are projected to rise between 4.5 feet to 6.9 feet by 2100.

Toll's initiative has received federal support from agencies like NASA and the Energy Department, as well from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia).

Toll agreed with other panelists who called for urgent action on climate change. He expressed hope that his pilot program could lead to action on a larger scale.

“We believe that this kind of regional plan can be a stepping stone to a national water plan,” said Toll.

The panelists agreed that effective communication is essential to combating the effects of sea-level rise. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School shared findings from his research on communicating the severity of climate change and sea-level rise in southeast Florida.

Kahan described a strategy for outreach which allows the audience to acknowledge the scientific consensus on an issue without having to expressly reject their own personal beliefs, particularly if they happen to disagree with the scientific community’s stance.

“Don’t make reasoning, free people choose between knowing what’s known and who they are,” Kahan explained, “because they’ll choose who they are.”

Kahan said that the tactic is being effectively used by local officials governed by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a bipartisan agreement between four counties to work together to counter the effects of climate change.

“They’re helping people to learn what the facts are and be ready to act on the facts,” said Kahan, “but in a way that doesn’t actually alienate them from their identity.”

Kahan’s research findings were collected after he conducted a study that distributed a scientific comprehension test that asked participants to judge as true or false two different statements: “Human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions,” and “According to climate scientists, human-caused global warming will result in flooding of many coastal regions.”

Researchers found respondents divided in weighing the veracity of the first statement, but found that the addition of the phrase “according to climate scientists” to the second statement, made respondents more likely to agree that that the statement was true.

Kahan said that the southeast Florida group has been able to unite people across the political spectrum to take coordinated action on sea-level rise by incorporating his findings in its approach to communications. The partnership, as a result, was able to produce a Regional Climate Action Plan, which provided over 100 recommendations aimed at making southeast Florida more resilient to changing sea levels.

While Kahan focused on the importance of communication in organizing responses to sea-level rise, Rutgers University’s Benjamin Horton explored the underlying scientific forces that drive sea-level increases.

Ocean volume is a significant factor in sea-level change, Horton said. Warming temperatures causes ocean water to expand, which raises sea level and glacial ice to melt that creates water that makes its way into ocean basins.

Horton explained that studying what happens to land is also important to understanding sea-level change over time. The land can rise or sink, creating regional sea-level change.

Like other panelists during the event, Horton called for urgent action on climate change because of the grave threat it poses. He concluded his remarks by saying that sea-levels along parts of the Atlantic coast could eventually rise by 25 feet in the next few centuries. Horton said, a shift of that magnitude “would destroy our civilization as we know it.”

[Associated image: Greg Thompson/USFWS/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]