SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Coastal Climate Impacts
The Southeast’s coastline is one of the region’s most impressive and attractive features. Stretching more than 2,000 miles, the Southeast Atlantic shoreline is home to more than 16 million people and hosts more than $2.2 trillion in property. This coastal region contains infrastructure of significant importance to the functionality of our country such as ports and military bases, as well as many of the top tourist destinations in North America. In addition, there are completely unique cultures such as Gullah/Geechee and irreplaceable historic landmarks dating back to the founding of the nation.
Having so much at stake, it is a true tragedy that the Southeast coast is so disproportionally at risk to the impacts of climate change. With great vulnerability to sea level rise and all of its associated consequences, stronger and more frequent storms, and ocean acidification, along with all of the other effects of climate change, coastal communities like Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa will be among the first to feel the impacts of global warming in America. Now, more than ever, it is of utmost importance to take action to protect our treasured Southeastern coastal places from the potentially ravaging effects of climate change.
As global mean temperatures rise, so does the sea level. There are two primary mechanisms driving sea level rise: ocean thermal expansion—the phenomenon of ocean water expanding as it warms—and glacial melting. With these two factors combined, leading scientists estimate between a two and five foot sea level rise by the end of the century, possibly more and possibly sooner.
Sea level rise will affect the coastal Southeast in a number of ways: flooding, shoreline erosion, higher storm surges, loss of property, salt water intrusion into fresh waters, and threatening unique coastal ecosystems such as the Everglades or Lowcountry marshes. One well-respected study reports an estimated $3.5 trillion of damages due to sea level rise by 2070 in Miami alone—just imagine what that means for the rest of the coast. Perhaps more threatening, though, is the prospect of losing so much of what we treasure about the coastal Southeast—amazing history, culture, and a way of life.
Are you wondering what this means for your community? You can use the interactive sea level rise maps on the Architecture 2030 and Climate Central websites to view the projected impact of sea level rise for your town or region.
While climate scientists have long warned us that warmer air and ocean temperatures due to global warming may fuel more frequent and increasingly severe storms, those warnings have just begun to hit home for us in the coastal Southeast. The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons were among the most active and destructive in recorded human history, resulting in the loss of many lives and billions of dollars in damage. 2011 had more billion dollar extreme weather events in the United States than any other year in history .
More occurrences of extreme weather events are driving up insurance rates as insurance companies see record losses related to hurricanes, snow storms, floods, and forest fires. Higher insurance rates are affecting the pocketbooks of all Southeastern coastal homeowners and the problem is not going to be fixed until we have a stabilized climate.
How many more Hugos, Andrews, Katrinas, or Ritas will it take to drive the message home that we need to build up the resiliency of our coastal communities and stabilize the climate?
Keep up to date with our latest posts about extreme weather on SACE’s Footprints Blog.
Ocean Acidification and Coral Bleaching
Oceans absorb about one third of the carbon dioxide pollution we put into the atmosphere, which lowers their pH levels and affects ocean biology from the tiniest sea snails to the great blue whales. Many sea creatures’ calcium carbonate seashells are eroded away as our oceans become more acidic – similar to the way that soda can eat away at the enamel on your teeth. However even the animals that don’t have shells will be affected because they likely eat animals that do. As we see shell-forming animals slowly die out, we will lose many of out favorite sea foods—oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, and even squid.
Recreational and commercial fishing—one of our favorite pastimes in the coastal Southeast—will be severely impacted by the process of ocean acidification. Commercial oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest have already been reporting major problems that are expected to intensify. It is even more striking when you consider that over 1 billion people on the planet survive by eating seafood as their primary food source.
Additionally, climate change poses a major threat to coral reefs by a process known as coral bleaching. When coral becomes stressed by some sort of trauma like too hot or too cold of water, it rids itself of its algae—thus the term bleaching—and is in a highly vulnerable state. The general warming trend we see associated with global warming and its extreme weather fluctuations therein set the stage for mass coral extinction. Warming events in the Pacific Ocean in 1997 and 1998 killed about one-sixth of the world’s coral and in 2005 half of the coral reefs in the U.S. Caribbean were lost due to excessively high temperatures. Not only would it be a tragedy in its own right to lose our beautiful and unique coral reef ecosystems to global warming, but many Southeast tourism dollars are based on reef diving and they would be lost to global warming too.
Keep up to date with our latest posts about ocean acidification on SACE’s Footprints Blog.
The two main strategies for coastal communities to deal with the impacts of climate change are mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation refers to the process of curbing our activities that contribute to global warming. Since the Southeast’s largest source of global warming causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is its energy infrastructure, that is where our greatest opportunities for change are. Investing in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy could produce huge reductions in GHGs. Energy efficiency must be the first improvement to be made because it is the quickest and cheapest way to meet our energy needs without increasing energy production. By making our homes, businesses, and industries more energy efficient, we will not only cut pollution but also save money. We must also transition our power production sources to clean, renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, and biomass.
Adaptation refers to the process of preparing for the impacts of climate change so that their impacts are minimal to society. We must build resiliency into our systems of delivering basic needs that can withstand the threats of global warming like hurricanes, flooding, and temperature swings.
What SACE is doing?
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) has taken a leadership role in educating citizenry and elected officials about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. In the spring of 2007, SACE helped facilitate the creation of the Southeast Coastal Climate Network (SECCN) and the Florida Climate Alliance (FCA) to foster regional leadership in mitigating and adapting to the challenges and opportunities associated with global warming. Now, the Network and the Alliance have grown to hundreds of groups representing tens of thousands of concerned coastal citizens from Maryland to Louisiana. Members of the SECCN and the FCA have invested considerable time and effort in educating a strong constituency base on the impacts of global warming as well as building support for strong national action to reduce global warming pollution.
On behalf of the SECCN and the FCA, SACE has developed a variety of educational resources for educating coastal citizens and decision makers about the. SACE has developed a three-part documentary series called Treasured Places in Peril that highlights global warming impacts in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. In 2008, SACE partnered with Architecture 2030 to develop animated Google Earth videos that graphically depict projected sea level rise impacts to coastal neighborhoods in Florida and South Carolina.
Raising the accountability level of decision makers in the region to address global warming is one of the most important goals of both the SECCN and the FCA. One of the most effective ways to influence a legislator is to make a personal visit and articulate the concerns surrounding the future of our coastal treasured places and to address the available opportunities to become part of the solution. The SECCN and the FCA have developed tools to help citizens and organizations request and implement productive meetings with their coastal representatives.