How US Coastal Communities Are Building Climate Resilience

According to the Third National Climate Assessment, nearly 5 million people in the coastal U.S. live within 4 ft. of their local high-tide level, and global sea levels are predicted to rise by up to 6.6 ft. by 2100 compared to 1992 measurements. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, which bring with them flooding, are increasing in frequency and causing devastation along U.S. coasts.

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) recently held a briefing to discuss infrastructure in relation to building resilience in America’s coastal communities. The panel included Nichole Hefty, deputy chief resilience officer at the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department of Miami-Dade County in Florida; Steve Walz, director of the Department of Environmental Programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; and Mark Wilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Charleston, South Carolina.

South Florida: A Region Comes Together

Hefty gave an overview of South Florida, an area that has been experiencing fluctuations in precipitation patterns and temperature extremes, which affects the regional economy, particularly agriculture and tourism.

“Last year was a pretty challenging year,” she said. Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane. “We feel like we really dodged the bullet because if we had been hit directly by a Category 5 hurricane, the damages would have been extremely severe.”

South Florida has been fighting sea level rise, storm surge vulnerability, more frequent king tides and coastal erosion. Scientists have been gathering data to conduct stormwater modeling and predict king tides.

South Florida’s elected officials came together in 2010 and started collaborating on a regional basis to address climate change issues, starting with a regional climate change compact that entails the development of policies, resources, action plans and community outreach. They have developed a unified sea level rise projection for the region to use for planning purposes. The region comes together to look at data and modeling and update projections as needed, relying heavily on the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and NOAA. The models are used by real estate developers and other stakeholders.

Hefty emphasized that insurance is part of economic resilience. She also highlighted the successes of strengthening infrastructure by changing design standards, raising roadways and installing pumps and berm to adapt to climate change.

DC: The Nation’s Capital Examines Its Rivers

Introducing initiatives in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Walz spoke about how rivers are an essential part of the region’s coastal water system. In the D.C. area, storm modeling is being done to manage risk related to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The risk increases as the population grows. Over the next 20 years, 1.2 to 1.3 million people will be added to the 5.3 million people in the D.C. metro area, he said. In addition to risking lives, storm surge and flooding puts national treasures at risk, as well as transportation, energy, water resources and communications.

The Potomac River flooding Washington, D.C., in 2010. (Photo Credit: brownpau/flickr)

The region anticipates hotter temperatures and more frequent drought conditions. The current baseline for days hotter than 95° F is about a dozen, and by 2080 the low scenario would be about 80 days with temps hotter than 90° F, Walz said. This means public health concerns, with more code red days for air quality.

The D.C. metro area recognized the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change and has put forth smart growth strategies. USACE has identified areas to address for flood risk mitigation. The coastal flood risk assessment involves storm modeling and planning for infrastructure and emergency response. Northern Virginia has finalized a critical infrastructure roadmap that will be expanded to the full region.

The lessons, according to Walz, are that the scope of success must be defined. This means focusing on: specific sectors and geographic areas, drivers, what impacts to address, raising awareness, defining risk tolerance to determine budget, stakeholder feedback, mainstreaming strategies into comprehensive plans, and communicating the plan to stakeholders.

There is “a lot going on in the local levels. We’re trying to knit it together regionally,” he said, because “the storms don’t stop at the jurisdiction lines.”

Charleston: Constant Flooding in a Small City

Telling the tale of the small southern coastal city of Charleston, S.C., Wilbert began by declaring that Charleston has had a flooding problem since it was founded.

“I think it’s important to understand that resilience is certainly about economics,” he said, bringing up the fact that the Port of Charleston provides $53 billion worth of economic impact to the city every year.

“Just as important for us in the city of Charleston is that resilience is about getting down to the personal level,” he added, mentioning that flooding affects people and their neighborhoods.

From the beginning, the city started filling in its marsh, which has created major problems. Flooding is primarily a drainage issue, and the city has invested $238 million in drainage and another $400 million in identified engineering projects.

After releasing its sea level rise strategy, the city has had three storm events: a 1,000-year rain event and two near-record storm surge events.

Tidal flooding in this city of 145,000 people is becoming a “nuisance,” said Wilbert. Right now, it occurs 50 days a year; it will occur more than 180 days a year by 2040.

Land use, or building where it makes sense to build, is a major piece of the puzzle for climate resilience. “We can’t make any more mistakes,” said Wilbert.

Regulations are another piece; going beyond the minimum and engaging engineers and scientists on stormwater and floodplain regulations. He also championed the national flood insurance program to help create adaptation measures in anticipation of big storms.

A third piece is addressing the skills gap. The city added four people this year to focus on flooding issues. Wilbert said bringing in people with the right skills is critical, including those who can communicate to federal officials about climate change issues.

A fourth piece is outreach. Wilbert called himself an “action” type, but said he learned that it’s not enough to act; communicating is just as important, telling people what you plan to do and then going out and doing it, instead of answering a barrage of questions later.

And then there is the infrastructure piece. “That’s the hard part,” he said, because infrastructure is expensive. Charleston has a billion-dollar problem, for example, and that’s more money than a small city can handle.

Climate resilience is a “shared responsibility,” Wilbert said. It takes government, businesses, neighborhoods and individuals working together to deal with the changes ahead.

Aileen Torres-Bennett

China’s Arctic Ambitions: Q&A with Sherri Goodman

Arctic icebergs

Icebergs in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 8, 2006, north of western Russia. (Photographer: Mike Dunn, NC State, Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo Credit: NOAA Climate Program Office, NABOS 2006 Expedition.)


The Arctic has traditionally been a region where cooperation has been common between nations. Its significance on the world’s geopolitical map is changing, however, as global warming leads to increased ice melt, thus reducing barriers to maritime navigation. Less ice means more shipping traffic and better access to resources, most notably, oil and gas.

China, despite not having any territory in the Arctic, recognizes the value of the polar region and has staked a claim with the release this January of its national Arctic policy. ST spoke with former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security) Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, about China’s Arctic, and global, ambitions.

Sherri Goodman

Sea Technology: Why is the Arctic important to China?

Sherri Goodman: I think China realizes that its economic future will absolutely involve Arctic resources, transit and influence. Once the Northern Sea Route, or eventually the Polar Route, becomes viable for destination shipping, it will cut days off other transit routes, and the Arctic is now projected to be substantially ice free in certain parts for four months of the year within the next 15 years or so.

So, the Chinese are looking at the future of the Arctic. Climate change has opened up a vast new region of the planet for shipping, energy resources. They have active energy projects with the Russians, [for example] at Yamal. They’ve also been making plays into Greenland and Iceland for energy and minerals.

They’ve got a very strategic approach to science. They’ve really ramped up their scientific research in the last five to twenty years, deploying their researchers and scientists to Svalbard in Norway, to Iceland and Greenland. There’s also vast fishing resources that are moving northward that will be plentiful. They see the opportunity and the promise, and they connected it into their whole Belt and Road Initiative.

ST: Can you place China’s Arctic policy in the context of Belt and Road?

SG: China’s Arctic policy—they’re building the spider web here. They’re building the web. It [China’s Belt and Road Initiative] already has blue economic passages in it, the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. They added the Arctic as one of the blue economic passages within the Belt and Road Initiative. Some call it a maritime Marshall Plan.

They just joined with Finland to develop subsea cables, to develop the Data Silk Road. There’s a lot of communications still to be laid and developed in this region.

And then they’re using their science as an investment with deliberate purpose. Investing more than all other non-Arctic states in observations, ocean research, climate change.

They’re also looking at how they participate in setting global norms by acknowledging that climate is changing, and this is why they need to be part of that region’s sustainable economic and social development policies. That’s how they couch their Arctic policy—through sustainable social and economic development. They’re developing their bid for Arctic leadership.

ST: Is it realistic for China to claim itself as an Arctic nation when it’s not geographically in the Arctic?

SG: They’ve stressed in this policy that the Arctic is a global commons. They stress that the Arctic is like the ocean and like space, that it’s a global commons area. It’s very different than how they approach the South China Sea and their claims in the South China Sea. I’m not sure they can fully be reconciled other than that it’s in their interest to have access to Arctic resources; it’s not in their national interest to allow others to dispute [China’s ownership of islands in the South China Sea].

ST: The U.S. does not have much technology in the Arctic. It barely has icebreakers, even though the Coast Guard has been pushing for new ones. What do you think of U.S. technology in the Arctic?

SG: For many years, the U.S. and, to some extent, Russia were the predominant players in Arctic science, research and technology. That’s shifted tremendously in the last five to ten years, and I think China is pursuing its science with a strategic purpose now in a way that I get concerned that the U.S. may underestimate.

We [the U.S.] don’t have a centralized approach or a coordinated approach to pursuing our science and research, and our industries are not clearly connected.

Now, China is able to bring a vast amount of resources to play from government and the private sector. They’re looking at peering into a region that is changing very rapidly and has somewhat of a leadership vacuum.

The U.S. has always been a somewhat reluctant Arctic nation. Many Americans don’t even think of the U.S. as an Arctic nation. As this region becomes more navigable and more exploitable and changes dramatically, we have to be aware and have a strategy for managing those changes.

Let’s not forgot that Russia has the longest coastline of any Arctic nation, and really sees the Northern Sea Route that runs along the Russian Arctic coast as an important toll road and resources for the future. Russia is a resource economy. Twenty-plus percent of its GDP comes from the Arctic, and it has long had significant populations in the Arctic.

Then, you could compare with some of our Nordic allies, Norway, Sweden, Finland, all of whom have undertaken pretty substantial innovation initiatives, whether through telecommunications, education or sustainable development.

ST: How do you think the U.S. sees the Arctic?

SG: In the last five or so years, most of our key agencies have developed Arctic strategies. There has been an Arctic policy going back to the 1980s, the first George Bush. It’s been refreshed and updated. When the U.S. chaired the Arctic Council 2015 to ’17, the U.S. put a lot more leadership initiative to it. It aligned with the last administration’s goals on climate change, a way to highlight that the climate is changing more rapidly in the Arctic than anywhere else in the planet. They held the first Arctic science summit.

Now there’s a lot of interagency and other networks established in the last administration that have withered and are dormant. And it wasn’t an accident that in the Chinese premier’s last visit to the U.S. he also went to Alaska. What we’ve seen in this era, in the Arctic and in general, is the rise of subnational- and [sub]state-level diplomacy. Now you have the Chinese premier having his own engagement strategy with Alaska!

ST: What are your predictions for what will happen in the Arctic in the next five to ten years—cooperation or conflict?

SG: Right now, there is good cooperation among the Arctic nations through the Arctic Council, and through other fora. And it’s most likely that that cooperation will continue because right now it’s in all of the Arctic and non-Arctic nations’ interest to continue to advance their science, communications, access and a variety of mechanisms by working together. I think the tensions or issues can arise if, for example, there’s always an accident waiting to happen, an oil spill or a ship that runs into trouble, and whether that’s addressed in a cooperative way, we won’t know until the incident occurs and what it presents. But that’s one area to watch out for, continue to plan for. That’s what the [Arctic] Coast Guard Forum is doing. If a transboundary incident occurs, it will involve leadership at high levels.

There’s also a question of conflict in the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine spilling into this region. The Russians are building up their military. The Chinese are building up their capabilities and military capacity.

I’m concerned the U.S. has been slow to develop its surface ability to operate and its infrastructure capability, partly because it doesn’t see itself as an Arctic nation and partly because it’s vastly expensive—but we do so at our peril because we could be surprised.

─Interview by Aileen Torres-Bennett

Montreal Protocol Cuts US GHG

The Montreal Protocol, the international treaty adopted to restore Earth’s protective ozone layer in 1989, has significantly reduced emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals from the U.S. In a twist, a new study shows the 30-year old treaty has had a major side benefit of reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S.

That’s because the ozone-depleting substances controlled by the treaty are also potent greenhouse gases, with heat-trapping abilities up to 10,000 times greater than carbon dioxide over 100 years.

The new study is the first to quantify the impact of the Montreal Protocol on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions with atmospheric observations. The study’s results show that reducing the use of ozone-depleting substances from 2008 to 2014 eliminated the equivalent of 170 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. That’s roughly the equivalent of 50 percent of the reductions achieved by the U.S. for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over the same period. The study was published today in Geophysical Research Letters.

Greek Island to Become Energy Pioneer


The small Greek island of Tilos in the Aegean Sea is set to become the first energy-independent island in the Mediterranean by relying exclusively in renewables.

Learn more here.

Support Marine Sanctuaries

marine sanctuaries

NOAA has reopened the public comment period on national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments until August 15.

If you want the Trump Administration to hear your thoughts on the importance of marine protected areas, you can sign this letter electronically:

Floating Island Concept Tested

floating islands

MARIN (Maritime Research Institute Netherlands) has tested an innovative concept for a floating mega island. The island comprises 87 large floating triangles that are connected to one another. Together they form a flexible floating island that can be as large as 1 to 5 km in cross-section.

Floating mega islands offer future-proof living and working space at sea for: developing, generating, storing and maintaining sustainable energy (offshore wind, tidal energy, wave energy and floating solar panels); loading and trans-shipping cargo in coastal areas where there is little infrastructure; cultivating food, such as seaweed and fish; and building houses and recreation close to the water.