Charleston’s Climate Vulnerabilities Highlighted on PBS NewsHour

Chris Carnevale | July 7, 2015 | Climate Change

A segment on Thursday evening’s PBS NewsHour took a good look at Charleston, South Carolina, and its state of preparedness for sea level rise from climate change. The segment brought up a few key points worth highlighting here.

1. Sea level is rising and tidal flooding is becoming more frequent and severe.

Sea level rise isn’t a future phenomenon–it is happening now and its rate is increasing. Global sea level has risen about 8 inches over the past century, although for the past couple decades, the rate has been higher than it was in the early 20th century. Accordingly, tidal flooding in coastal communities has become more frequent and severe. Today, coastal communities in the U.S. experience 3 to 9 times as many flooding days as they did in the 1960s. Charleston, for example, experienced about 4.6 days per year of tidal flooding in the 1960s and now experiences 23.3 days of tidal flooding. You can see images of what these nuisance floods look like in the NewsHour video. Looking to the future, because of global warming, the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) anticipates between 8 inches and 6.6 feet of global sea level rise during the course of this century. This will mean coastal communities will face significantly more tidal flooding. Charleston, for example, is potentially facing 80 days per year of nuisance flooding by 2030 and 180 days per year by 2045, according to analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

2. Our treasured places are at risk.

Some of our most treasured places are jeopardized by such flooding. Charleston exemplifies this risk, with its rich history, culture, architecture, and economic importance. Some of our main tourist areas, such as the Market, where business owner Sandy Bridges, who is featured in the NewsHour segment, has her shop, are extremely low-lying and therefore immensely vulnerable to increased flooding. Already, nuisance flooding takes a toll on local businesses’ bottom lines and tourists’ ability to enjoy the city; additional flooding from sea level rise may shift the balance from regularly being a mere nuisance to being a hazard. As with the built environment, so too are some of our favorite natural heritage sites jeopardized, such as our beaches and salt marshes–the landscapes that give this area a strong sense of place. Walking through the art festival at the recent Spoleto Festival in Charleston, I was amazed at just how many of our local artists choose the salt marsh as the subject of their art. It’s not difficult to see why, given its deep beauty and sense of tranquility. Yet, treasured places like these are jeopardized by sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

Kayakers enjoy paddling on Market Street in downtown Charleston when Hurricane Isaac passed in August 2012. Photo courtesy of Charles Merry.

3. To understand our risks, coastal communities need to perform local vulnerability assessments.

While we can make educated guesses about where our communities’ greatest risks lie, to properly understand these risks and how to address them, coastal communities need to perform local vulnerability assessments. As Liz Fly, with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium said in the NewsHour segment, it’s important for communities–Charleston and others–to look at the range of sea level rise scenarios and manage risk appropriately. Some infrastructure may be more tolerant to risk, thus allowing the use of lower sea level rise projections, and some may be more risk sensitive, in which case projections of higher rates of sea level rise should be employed.

4. Some communities are charting a course for others to learn from.

As Ben Strauss from Climate Central wisely said in the NewsHour segment, our society has no precedent for the idea that land will be disappear, and a very deep look is called for. Nonetheless, some communities throughout the U.S. have begun examining this subject and planning for climate change impacts including sea level rise. New York City is highlighted in the show, but it is not just cities with the population and resources of New York, nor just those with tragic impetus of natural disaster, that are taking action. There are examples of communities large and small throughout the Southeast that are beginning to address these questions by understanding their vulnerabilities and charting a course forward. Charleston and other coastal communities throughout the Southeast would do well to seriously look at these efforts and apply them back home.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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