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Home / Science / News /  The Jersey shore is sinking. Do we want to save it?

In Ocean City, New Jersey, a barrier-island resort featuring a famous boardwalk, expensive homes and an infinite supply of salt-water taffy, what the secretary-general of the United Nations called “code red for humanity" manifests today mostly as puddles.

The secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, meant to convey the direness of the data in the UN’s comprehensive report on climate change, which was issued in early August. Like previous UN climate reports, reflecting the consensus of the world’s scientists, it’s a dense product of instrumentation, calculation and heightened alarm. But if this 3,949-page analysis hit the world with more force than previous scientific pleas for decarbonization, it’s only partly due to the report’s “code red" conclusions, which are not a marked departure from previous warnings.

What distinguished this report was its dramatic supporting cast. Climate refugees. Deathly drought. Murderous floods. Fires raging uncontrolled from Siberia to South America and California. For humans lacking the imagination to project into the climate-crisis future, the earth has been helpfully bringing the future into focus. 

Puddles don’t seem particularly menacing compared with millions of acres ablaze. But the sea that encircles Ocean City is rising. It backs up in storm drains that, when the tide is high, have no place to discharge their water. It seeps through the gaps between bulkheads on the bay. It creeps in from the marsh. The brackish fluid malingers on Ocean City street corners like juvenile delinquents from 1950s Hollywood noir — dissipating by the curb, vandalizing property, making respectable people nervous.

Soon after the UN issued its daunting global climate report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a code-red warning for New Jersey, though color is sometimes hard to see in the Army Corps’ dense cloud of technical language, jargon and acronyms. The “New Jersey Back Bays Coastal Storm Risk Management Draft Integrated Feasibility Study and Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement" runs well over 500 pages. Its subject is more than 950 square miles, and 3,500 linear miles, of New Jersey shoreline, from Long Branch in the north to Cape May Point, the state’s southernmost point.

The Back Bays study is a preliminary plan, essentially a rough estimate of the price the Jersey shore must pay the climate piper to keep its barrier islands, including Ocean City, from drowning.

Rising sea levels represent an inexorable process causing numerous, significant water resource problems such as increased widespread flooding along the coast; changes in salinity gradients in estuarine areas that impact ecosystems; increased inundation at high tide; decreased capacity for storm water drainage; and declining reliability of critical infrastructure services such as transportation, power, and communications. Addressing these problems requires a paradigm shift in how we work, live, travel, and play in a sustainable manner as a large extent of the area is at a very high risk of coastal storm damage as sea levels continue to rise.

The report’s recommendations involve a lot of very expensive hardware to regulate the rising flow of water coming from various bays. Since politics is not the Corps’ main competency, the report is notably quiet on who, in the end, should pay for all its recommended steps — many of which would protect the property of extremely wealthy people.

The report calls for massive storm surge barriers at Manasquan Inlet, Barnegat Inlet and Great Egg Harbor Inlet, along with two cross-bay barriers (one at the increasingly soggy south end of Ocean City). In addition, the tentative plan calls for “nonstructural solutions," including elevation and floodproofing for 18,800 structures in the study area. The price tag, for now, is $16 billion, with another $196 million annually in operational and maintenance costs.

The study notes that this “paradigm shift" to industrial flood control might be a little jarring. At the beautiful, tranquil shore, there will be “visual adverse effects" associated with the steel and concrete construction to mitigate flooding. Proposed storm surge barriers, cross-bay barriers, floodwalls, and levees will be “permanent and visible both on land and from the water," the study notes.

In other words, physically — as well as financially and politically — the consequences of climate change are about to get ugly.

***

Tom Herrington is guiding me on a tour of puddles. Herrington is an Ocean City native — we drove past the house where he grew up — who became a coastal engineer and is now associate director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Tropical storm Henri dropped a lot of rain the day before, and I am expecting to see some impressive specimens. But most of the pooled water we see is of the minor nuisance variety. Heavy rains contribute to flooding here. But sea rise is the real puddle king, and its invasions of the land are more a function of tides and storm surges than precipitation.

One of the revelations of Sandy, the super storm that battered the New Jersey coast in 2012, was that the television news cameras were pointed in the wrong direction. The ocean produced dramatic footage of crashing waves and surf churned skyward by howling winds. But most of the property destruction entered more quietly from the bay side. “Sandy hit, and that was the game changer. It was eye-opening to see how vulnerable the back-bay side of the islands was," Herrington said. “This problem on the bay side is really, really tricky because of all the private property ownership."

According to the Back Bays study, Sandy left behind 137,309 damaged structures and $4.5 billion in total damages in the five New Jersey coastal counties the report addresses. Two of the biggest post-Sandy payouts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to New Jersey property owners took place in the Toms River and Brick Townships, which combined for more than $800 million in damage claims. Neither has much oceanfront. Both, however, have significant exposure to the bay.

Sea rise, along with more intense and frequent storms, promises billions more in damage. The sea is rising everywhere. But it’s rising faster and higher at the Jersey shore than elsewhere. Researchers at Rutgers University found that from 1911 to 2019, sea level rose almost 1.5 feet at the Jersey shore, while the change in global mean sea level was less than half that — 7.6 inches. The rate is increasing as warming temperatures reduce glaciers to water. From 1979 to 2019, the Rutgers report states, “sea level rose at an average rate of 0.2 inches per year along the New Jersey coast, compared to an average rate of 0.1 inches per year globally."

New Jersey’s trouble with rising water is compounded by its status as sinking land. In prehistory, the glaciers to the north exerted downward pressure that propped up the Jersey shore like the light side of a see-saw. Now the glaciers are in retreat, and the glacier side of the see-saw is rising. “Because of the overbearing pressure of the glaciers, they were kind of pushing us up," Herrington explained. “As they release pressure, and the land rises over there, we tilt down. That’s why sea level is rising faster here than most other places."

New Jersey is subject to another oddity. “Oceanographers have studied the really complex interactions between the melting ice sheets and the Gulf Stream," Herrington said. “They’re all interconnected in this global circulation." Coursing through the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf Stream’s speed creates a tilt to the surface of the ocean that pulls water away from the coast. But the Gulf Stream is slowing down. As it does, its tilt decreases, pulling less water.  “As it slows down," Herrington said, “that tilt is declining. So that’s another component. It’s small, but it’s still a component."

Between the rising sea, the sinking land and the funky tilt of the Gulf Stream, much of the Jersey shore doesn’t need a major storm to flood. A strong high tide will do. Rutgers researchers found that the coast averaged fewer than one “high-tide flood event" per year in the 1950s. Between 2007 and 2016, by contrast, Atlantic City averaged eight per year, hitting a peak of 18 in 2009. “The frequency of high tides exceeding the current high-tide flood threshold will continue to increase with sea-level rise," the Rutgers report states. “For example, based on the likely range of sea-level rise projections, Atlantic City will experience 17-75 days of expected high-tide flooding per year in 2030, and 45-255 days per year of expected high-tide flooding in 2050."

Consider what that last sentence entails. The year 2050 is only 29 years away. At the high end of the range, 255 days of tidal flooding, sunny days very much included, Atlantic City would experience flooding on seven of every 10 days.

Herrington and I are driving toward Ocean City’s south end, where homes were built on landfill on the marsh. We take a left at 34th Street, one of the emergency evacuation routes off the island. “It’ll flood on a 10-year storm event," he says of the street, meaning a storm with a 10% probability of occurring in any given year. The Army Corps has proposed a bay wall on this end to protect some of the houses. But as Herrington points out, people bought homes here because of the views. A wall across the bay surely wasn’t factored into their thinking.

How extensively the rest of America wants to subsidize this privileged, affluent and overwhelmingly White community, much of it consisting of second homes, is an intriguing question. Most taxpayers are no doubt unaware that they already pay to keep the beachfronts of these islands replenished with sand, courtesy of federally financed dredging operations. The rising seas are going to require ever more costly interventions to protect million-dollar properties from the ravages of a climate that is also doing plenty of damage in less affluent, more diverse parts of the nation.

Some have made the case that climate change and the prospect of costly measures to hold off the water have already undermined coastal property values. But according to Zillow, Ocean City home values are up 22.2% over the past year. A typical single-family home costs almost $1.2 million. If sea rise is attacking the real estate market here, the market does not seem overly perturbed.

That can change in a hurry, of course. As the water continues to rise, and plans for barriers and the like become more real, wealthy homeowners will confront stark and costly challenges. Meanwhile, the federal government, which typically funds about 65% of the costs of such projects, will gradually see its leverage increase over otherwise politically potent residents who are accustomed to bending the system to their will. 

“It’s a heavily subsidized environment," Herrington said. “This million-dollar beach is subsidized by the federal government and state resilience projects that are designed to help reduce flooding. It’s financed by state and federal funds. At some point you can turn that [funding] off. That’s the leverage they have."

In its plodding, technical language, and emotion-free analysis, the Army Corps’ Back Bays report hints at troubles ahead.

Coastal communities face tough choices as they adapt local land use patterns while striving to preserve community cohesiveness and economic vitality. In some cases, this may mean that, just as ecosystems migrate and change functions, human systems may have to relocate in a responsible manner to sustain their economic viability and social resilience. Absent improvements to our current planning and development patterns that account for future conditions, the next devastating storm event will result in similar or worse impacts.

It seems unlikely, bordering on impossible, that the owners of million- and multi-million-dollar vacation homes will be among the “human systems" that “relocate in a responsible manner" to some less fragile and less squishy locale, where the horizon is more humble, and the views more mundane. But from raging fire to melting ice, the consequences of climate change are growing more visible and threatening. As the contours of these threats come into view, working their way into popular media and public consciousness, issues of cost and equity will not be far behind.

Will Americans spend billions to safeguard the coastal playgrounds of the very wealthy? The politics of that may prove every bit as complex as the marine engineering.

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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