Life on the coast is unique in many ways. From our breathtaking sunrises over the Atlantic, to the seasonal flux of tourists, we live our life in tune with the rhythm of the ocean, tides rising and falling with a reassuring predictability.
But that same ocean that makes life here so sweet also poses a threat we know all too well - flooding. As is illustrated on too many streets downtown nearly anytime it rains, flooding is an issue we are dealing with in Charleston. But this problem is only going to get worse as our climate continues to change and sea levels rise.
The world's leading climate scientists, collectively known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including local scientists from USC, recently released the final of three reports on climate change. The first one was released last fall and dealt with the physical science of climate change, the second report was released in March, and detailed the many impacts of climate change, and the final report was released last month, and presents some options for dealing with climate change.
The main message is clear: Climate change is here, now, and the sooner we take action, the less it will cost us. Specifically what matters most for those of us on the coast are three simple words with very daunting implications: sea level rise. As glaciers melt, and as the oceans warm and expand, the sea level is rising.
When talking about sea level rise, the reasons for despair are many, but we have even more cause to be hopeful. We know how to solve the cause of this problem - transition to clean energy using currently-available technology such as solar panels and wind turbines. However, for us to embrace the solutions, we need to understand the impetus for taking action on climate change and sea level rise.
It's not a matter of whether the seas are rising, but rather how much and by when. Since 1921, the tide gauge in the Charleston Harbor has measured a historic rate of rise of 1 foot per 100 years, however, looking forward, the best available science says that sea levels will rise exponentially through the end of this century and could range up to 6 feet depending on efforts to limit carbon pollution.
Higher sea levels mean more flooding on our low-lying land and roads, more transportation problems, more infrastructure improvement projects, less beach, less marshland, and the list goes on. It's really quite problematic.
Recent elevation mapping shows that significant sections of downtown are very vulnerable to inundation at high tide with just two feet of sea level rise, namely Union Pier and the cruise ship terminal, some South of Broad houses near Colonial Lake, and roads and buildings in Harleston Village and on the MUSC campus. See the maps for yourself at SCBARS.org. Greater rise will mean additional flooding.
We know that when the ocean rises up, the consequences are terrible. So other than reducing the amount of carbon we put into the atmosphere, what else should we be doing?
It's tough to say what exactly, without knowing precisely where our vulnerabilities lie. Some generalizations would probably be safe to make, like structures and roadbeds need to be built higher and our current efforts to address stormwater drainage need to continue as planned.
But the precise vulnerabilities that Charleston faces from different predictions of sea level rise have not yet been explored. The good news is that recently reported comments by a city official indicate that this needed step might soon be taken through the formation of a sea level rise task force.
However, playing defense can only get us so far without an offensive strategy too. We know that sea level is rising because we burn dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil, which pollute our air and warm the earth. In addition to implementing local sea level rise resiliency strategies, we need to push all of our elected officials and power utilities to fully utilize our God-given renewable energy resources such as solar and wind, which are unlimited and produce no pollution.
By switching away from polluting fossil fuels, clean energy will actually mitigate sea level rise and help protect our beaches, coasts, and communities.
Chris Carnevale is the coastal climate and energy coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.