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Experts warn of growing risks to heavily populated coastlines

UCAR congressional briefing highlights storms, surge, and sea level rise

Nov 14, 2018 - by David Hosansky

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Trillions of dollars' worth of U.S. coastal development and military installations are at risk from powerful storms and sea level rise, a panel of experts warned at a congressional briefing today. They said that continued investments into accurate and timely weather forecasts and long-term understanding of the Earth system are vital for saving lives and protecting property in densely populated coastal regions, both in the United States and overseas.

The panelists highlighted new research into the interaction of the ocean, atmosphere, and land at the coastline. This work is improving our understanding of weather patterns and coastal inundation that bring damaging impacts from wind and water.

The briefing was sponsored by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a nonprofit consortium of 117 colleges and universities focused on research and training in the atmospheric and related sciences.

"Our coasts are the critical intersection between fast-growing and economically important communities and some of the most destructive and difficult-to-predict weather systems on the planet," said UCAR President Antonio Busalacchi. "We need to look at the entire Earth system and how the ocean, atmosphere, and land interact in complex ways that can spawn powerful storms and extreme flooding."

Busalacchi, an expert on the ocean's influence on weather and climate patterns, noted that hurricanes have numerous and often overlapping impacts, including high winds, storm surge, and torrential flooding. This year alone, hurricanes Michael and Florence caused dozens of deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages, both along the coast and in low-lying inland regions vulnerable to flooding. The military also was not immune: Hurricane Michael's catastrophic winds battered Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, home to advanced F-22 stealth fighter jets.

Kyle Mandli, a storm surge expert with Columbia University's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, highlighted research into computer models that aims to alert local officials and residents to the threat of flooding in vulnerable areas, pinpointing risks down to particular neighborhoods and streets. This is particularly important at a time when concern about the impact of storm surge on coastal areas is growing.

"Research has been instrumental in our ability to understand these increased risks and continues to push the frontiers of the accuracy of these predictions," he said. "The science has advanced to the point where we can make better decisions for the economy and national security."

Sally Yozell, senior fellow and director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, discussed the security implications of a changing climate on heavily populated coastal communities worldwide. Changes in temperature and precipitation, along with sea level rise, can lead to the migration of masses of people and potentially spark instability and conflict.

"We need to identify the geographies most at risk and help them prepare for the impacts of climate change before they become hot spots for instability and conflict," she said. "Coastal concerns are national security concerns."

Christopher D'Elia, professor and dean of the College of the Coast and Environment at Louisiana State University, highlighted the potential impacts of sea level rise and major storms on the Gulf Coast, home to military bases and more than $2 trillion in GDP, including much of the nation's offshore drilling platforms and oil refineries. During the next 50 years, Louisiana will lose billions of dollars' worth of homes and businesses to encroaching seas, which have already claimed an area the size of Delaware and are continuing to engulf Louisiana's low-lying coastal region, he said.

"What we do in the Gulf affects the livelihoods of everyone in the country. A port can be shut down because of a storm and cause major disruption of commerce to inland communities,” D’Elia said. “The coast is ground zero for climate change and becoming more and more difficult to protect."

The panelists stressed that decision-makers should integrate science into their planning decisions to prepare for near-term threats from storms and coastal flooding as well as longer-term sea level rise. They noted that, even as the threats to coastal communities and infrastructure are increasing, many communities are taking steps to become more resilient, such as passing stricter building codes, protecting natural barriers, and encouraging new construction in areas that are less vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise.

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