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As Sea Level Rise Accelerates, Buying Shorefront Property Becomes a Game of Musical Chairs

Ivy Main's picture
Publisher Powerforthepeopleva

Ivy Main is a writer, lawyer, and environmental advocate, and volunteers extensively with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition to lobbying in the Virginia General Assembly for...

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  • Apr 5, 2015

Sea level rise graphThank God for climate change deniers. They may eventually be the only buyers for shorefront real estate.

Sea level rise may not cause widespread flooding until later in this century or into the next one, but real estate deals involve long timelines: the useful life of a new house or a commercial building can be at least fifty years, while an infrastructure project might last a hundred years or more.

And of course, it’s one thing to lose your house, and another to lose the ground beneath it. Sea level rise means low-lying real estate now comes with an expiration date.

So smart buyers—and landowners—have to consider not just today’s flood maps, but also ones that haven’t been drawn yet. If a rising sea will threaten property some decades from now, it will depreciate over time, like a car. At some point only chumps and climate deniers will buy.

Head-in-the-sand posturing still dominates the headlines, like Florida Governor Rick Scott’s alleged ban on the use of the term “climate change,” or the North Carolina legislature’s silly (and costly) attempt to legislate sea level rise out of existence. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hopes to force states to get serious about climate change by requiring states to do a better job planning for natural disasters caused in part by global warming. FEMA’s goal is to save money through better planning, but conservatives have attacked the requirement as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, however, many states and localities have already begun using sea level rise forecasting in their planning. The projections will help land use planners determine not just where to allow growth, but also where to defend existing development against the incursion of the sea, and where the wiser course is to retreat. And of course, the studies should inform the decisions of anyone thinking of buying property on the coast.

Two recent studies provide a picture of sea level rise in Virginia. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) issued its report in January 2013, titled Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. Building on that study and others, on March 10 of this year the Sierra Club released Sea Level Rise: What Should Virginia Plan For?

Both studies agree on some pretty sobering numbers. By the end of this century, the sea level in Norfolk, Virginia, is projected to be 3.6-5 feet above the level in 1992. By that point, the sea will be rising more than half a foot per decade. The numbers are higher for Virginia than for many states, in part because the land around Hampton Roads is also sinking at a rate of about one foot per century.

Although Hampton Roads gets most of the media attention, sea level rise threatens the entire Virginia coastline and the tidal portions of rivers, including the Potomac River all the way up to Alexandria and Washington, D.C. A whole lot of people should be consulting topographic maps before they make their next real estate decision.

The Sierra Club report focuses in on specific timeframes that matter in real estate decisions: twenty-five years for short-term projects, fifty years for new homes, and a hundred years for infrastructure projects. With a one-foot margin of safety added in, the report recommends that anyone considering a new project or building today with a 50-year expected life should plan for as much as 3.7 feet of sea level rise over the 1992 baseline. That number becomes 5.5-7.2 feet when the planning horizon is extended out a hundred years, to 2115.

(The “good” news is that the sea rose half a foot between 1992 and today, so you get to subtract six inches from these projections if you are starting now.)

Results are stated as a range rather than a precise number because the actual level will depend on many factors. Researchers agree that a certain amount of sea level rise is “baked in” as a result of greenhouse gas emissions to date, but future emissions will play a big role in determining how much the seas rise in the long run. Providing a range allows users to decide how much risk they are willing to take. Even at the high end, there are caveats; new information about melting ice in Eastern Antarctica could make today’s projections too conservative.

Right now many shore communities are hosting a game of musical chairs. Developers continue to build and sell new housing, figuring they can earn a good return on their investment and get out before the market collapses. Buyers aren’t told about the risks. Sea level rise is bad for business, so business would rather not talk about it. And some local governments soft-peddle the news, afraid of setting off a panic that will make the collapse of the real estate market a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Virginia General Assembly took action this year to require localities in the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to include measures addressing sea level rise in their comprehensive plans. The District includes 16 local governments in southeast Virginia, but that’s only a fraction of the counties and cities vulnerable to sea level rise.

Another bill requires that the disclaimer form provided to home buyers across the state include language warning that the seller makes no representations about whether the property is located in a “special flood hazard area” or may require flood insurance, putting the onus on buyers to inquire. While prudent buyers will follow through (and mortgage lenders will make sure they do), today’s flood maps don’t reflect tomorrow’s reality.

So these bills are a good start, but Virginia needs to do more. Local governments outside of Hampton Roads need specific guidance for planning, and the public needs better education about the floods to come. By the time the sea claims low-lying neighborhoods from Virginia Beach up to Alexandria, there may not be enough climate deniers left to buy everyone out.

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Apr 6, 2015

The music is still playing and few understand it will stop. 

Audubon magazine published a cover story in their March – April 2015 issue about the effect of rising sea level on Outer Banks, North Carolina. 

Some clown who arrived from the Midwest to vacation in a rental home one house back from the waterfront was said to be “mystified” that in between the time he reserved the rental home and when he arrived for his family vaction the property had become waterfront because the house in front of it was gone. 

The article goes on:  “The dad, a businessman back home, couldn’t help but divine a savvy strategy for investors in the local real estate market – buy a cheaper house a few blocks back from the waterline… and wait until the waterfront comes to you“. 

The article noted that property values in Outer Banks are “up a healthy 5%”. 

Steve Case's picture
Steve Case on Apr 6, 2015

“By the end of this century, the sea level in Norfolk, Virginia, is projected to be 3.6-5 feet above the level in 1992. By that point, the sea will be rising more than half a foot per decade.”

Half a foot per decade is over 15 mm/yr.

Using data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level it can be shown that acceleration of sea level rise at Hampton Roads over the last 60 years is about 0.06 mm/yr². Starting with today’s rate of 5.8 mm/yr and extrapolating forward that comes to about 2.3 feet for the 108 year period of 1992 to 2100 with a final rate 9.6 mm/yr. 

Steve Case – Milwaukee, WI

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 6, 2015

Steve, what leads you to believe the acceleration of sea level rise will remain constant for the next 85 years?

Ivy Main's picture
Ivy Main on Apr 6, 2015

Steve, extrapolating from past sea level rise won’t accurately predict future sea levels. It doesn’t account for the acceleration in sea level rise resulting from thermal expansion of ocean waters and the addition of water from melting glaciers, both of which are increasing, and both of which are direct results of global warming. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 10, 2015

Starting with today’s rate of 5.8 mm/yr …

Though higher in the last century at around 3 mm/year, the sea level rise figures from NOAA for 2005 through 2012, using both satellites and bouys, is at most 1.6 mm/year  +/- 0.8. 

The Budget of Recent Global Sea Level Rise 2005-2012, NOAA, Table 1.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 7, 2015

Coastline has been lost in the Outer Banks and the Virginia barrier islands since there have been people to record it, and the fast effects are due to erosion, both natural and that hastened by unwise development but having little to do with climate change on yearly time scales.  Longer term, with land sinkage in the region of a several inches per century (as per the article), and several inches per century of sea level rise since the end of the little ice age, more land in the regino  has been claimed since the middle of the 19th century.  In a world where man-made warming has suddenly ended the above losses will continue, as indicated by “historic” graph in the VIMs report. 

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Apr 10, 2015

Sea level rise used to be on the far horizon, timewise, but it has suddenly become urgent because the ice is melting much faster than forecast. In addition to that there is the short term issue of the Gulf Stream slowing which has put 5″ on the Eastern seaboard in just five years. Its all getting very immediate.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 10, 2015

” which has put 5″ on the Eastern seaboard in just five years.”

25 mm/year?  Non-scientific nonsense. Numerous science references for global and mid-atlantic references have already been provided in the article.  The mid-atlantic (VIMS) data includes land sinkage and recovery from the little ice age, independent of sea level forcing from man made warming.  And then there’s the IPCC AR5. 

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Apr 10, 2015

Two reports out in the last month confirm the 5″. One from Florida and the other from the North East. Start looking as things are moving quickly.

But yiu could read my blog for a simple explanation.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 10, 2015

The Nature article on the NE refers to a spike in local sea levels due to temporary wind and current changes, which later retreated.  Hurricane winds surge sea height by a couple meters for some hours, but these are not considered a manifestation of ice melt and thermal expansion caused sea level rise, which is the real problem.  “The sea level has since dropped after that spike, ” says the author of the Nature article. This is not an example of long term sea level rise. There is no basis in the latest IPCC report for SLR to suddenly start “moving quickly” over a span of a couple years.  While anyone is free to speculate, to do so outside of the IPCC findings is non-scientific. 

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 10, 2015

Why would you imagine the IPCC AR5 did not consider ice sheet loss?   The term is referenced over 374 times. See “Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets , pg 1153”, here:

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Apr 10, 2015

Its because the breakup of an ice sheet is unpredictable and can not be forecast. When you speak to specialists on the ice sheets who have done research there you get a more frank and very alarming picture. There are a lot of scientists on the ice now but even so much of it is inhospitable and inaccessable and so it is extemely expensive to get data.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Apr 10, 2015

Specialists are capable of speaking, and publishing, for themselves.

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Apr 11, 2015

The bit about Obama was fabriacted by Breitbart as part of their anti climate change/Obama policy.

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