Bolster communities’ resilience against rising sea levels

Market vendors sweep out wate rwhen it floods. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

BY HOLLY BAMFORD

For ocean-dependent states and coastal communities like Charleston, sea level rise is a reality that cannot be avoided.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric study released today shows that between May 2014 and May 2015 Charleston dealt with more than 30 days of “nuisance flooding.” This is probably no surprise to anyone who has stepped into puddles in Charleston’s City Market on a sunny day, or who has driven down any number of flooded streets.

Compared to the past 50 years, the frequency of nuisance flooding in Charleston has increased by more than 400 percent. In response, Charleston has improved downtown water storage systems, reducing downtown flooding, enabling crosstown traffic, and helping to sustain the vital tourist economy.

But in coming years, this type of tidal influence on water level will become the new normal for coastal communities like Charleston, as sea level rise continues to push more and more water onto downtown coastal streets and at-risk coastal highways.

As America’s coastal communities grow more vulnerable to inundation and flooding, and all communities across our nation face a future of evolving environmental challenges, the key question is: How can we help communities become more resilient and adapt to a new normal?

Supporting community resilience is at the heart of NOAA’s mission to protect lives and livelihoods and improve long-term sustainability.

I’m pleased to say that South Carolina is already out in front of this challenge. As one of just four states in the nation designated as StormReady by NOAA’s National Weather Service, South Carolina is equipped to convey risks quickly, broadly and reliably. StormReady’s communications infrastructure, hazardous weather training and safety programs bolster resilience across the state.

Resilience has three dimensions — economic, ecological and societal. Taken together, building resilience enables people, communities and businesses to hedge risk to threats and hazards. When hazards strike, resilience supports renewed vitality and recovery with fewer negative impacts.

Through public investment in monitoring and observing systems, including ships, planes, satellites, buoys and tide gauges, NOAA provides the environmental information critical to living and working smarter. Our goal is to ensure that every American community is ready, responsive and resilient to accelerating vulnerability to extreme weather, water and climate conditions.

NOAA is pleased to join our many South Carolina partners on the front lines of resilience. Thanks to sound environmental information, NOAA is working with FEMA and South Carolina’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management to align beach planning with better flood policies at reduced costs to policyholders. With just a click, NOAA’s Sea-Level Rise Viewer simulates the frequency of flooding, depicts how rising water will affect landmarks, and provides the insight of social and economic data. Using the Sea-Level Rise Viewer, the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium is working with the Beaufort and Port Royal communities to anticipate flood “hot spots” and develop adaptation strategies. Tide gauges are keeping a close check on sea level and flood elevation thresholds, and coastal flood advisories are timely and precise.

Ports are critical to our nation’s economy, and the Port of Charleston, with thousands of ships coming in and out every year, is a major driver of our nation’s economy. NOAA’s PORTS’ system makes sure these ships navigate safely and efficiently. Every six minutes, real-time water level and other critical information are relayed to pilots.

The need for such accurate, environmentally sound information is growing exponentially. Between 2013 and 2014, cargo containers entering the Port of Charleston jumped nearly 14 percent. In Charleston County alone, ocean-dependent businesses support close to 30,000 jobs.

From observations and data to products and services, NOAA is looking at resilience with a wide lens and working with our partners to identify and help communities implement solutions. To stay ahead of our fast-changing, challenging environment, we must build on such advances and improve and expand ocean observational and predictive capabilities.

That’s what it will take to keep our nation’s communities and economy strong, and the Palmetto State as resilient as its legendary namesake.

Holly Bamford, Ph.D., is assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, performing the duties of the assistant secretary of Commerce for Conservation and Management.