Melting Antarctica

This January 2018 photo provided by researcher Andrew Shepherd shows an unusual iceberg near the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. In a study released Wednesday, June 13, 2018, an international team of ice experts said the melting of Antarctica is accelerating at an alarming rate, with about 3 trillion tons of ice disappearing since 1992. (Andrew Shepherd/University of Leeds via AP)

Flooding is already a problem for too many homes in the Charleston area. Imagine if the sea level were 2 feet higher.

That’s the nightmare scenario outlined in a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists that analyzes the impact of higher seas on coastal zip codes. If water levels rise by 2 feet in the next 30 years, as many as 8,000 properties in Charleston County could flood a whopping 26 times per year.

Flooding that frequent would make a home unlivable and a piece of property all but worthless. Obviously, that’s a tragedy for displaced families who lose their possessions and investments. It’s a potentially dangerous situation.

And it’s also a huge loss for the county’s tax base — to the tune of almost $40 million in annual property taxes. That’s about a quarter of the county’s budgeted property tax revenue this year, as Post and Courier reporter Abigail Darlington described in a story Monday.

Meanwhile, Charleston city officials are struggling to come up with $2 billion to fix identified flooding problem spots within city limits. Add in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, James Island, the beach communities and the rest of Charleston County and the financial needs become even more daunting.

Lowcountry municipalities must change the way developments are allowed to build in low-lying areas. And even higher-ground property owners should plan for steadily rising seas over the next several decades.

Stricter rules are needed to ensure that homes are more resilient and protected against floodwaters and during storms. It’s better — and cheaper — to prepare for the worst rather than repair the damage from repetitive flooding.

And it’s certainly more cost-effective to build for flooding than it is to buy out flood-prone homes. Charleston and the federal government are in the process of spending about $11 million to buy out a few dozen problem properties in West Ashley, for example.

There are another $4.8 billion worth of homes in Charleston County alone threatened by flooding if sea levels continue to rise. And the National Flood Insurance Program is more than $25 billion in debt. In other words, it would be ruinous to keep up the status quo.

The sea level rise study is particularly noteworthy in light of another recently released report that analyzes satellite data from the past 25 years to track the melting of Antarctic ice. Scientists found that melting ice had contributed to about a third of an inch in global sea level rise over that period.

That might not sound like much, but more than half of the increase was in the past five years. In other words, the rate of melting appears to be increasing.

If all of Antarctica were to melt — something that has happened at other periods in global history, albeit over millions of years — sea levels could rise by as much as 190 feet. Obviously, even a tiny fraction of that melting would cause disaster.

We can and should work to mitigate the impacts of climate change to help slow the rate at which seas rise. But since Charleston’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is comparatively minuscule, we ought to also prepare for the worst.

Find the money to protect the city as it stands today, and build for a wetter future.