Sea Level Rise: An Issue That Affects Every Coastal Community

Visitors pose for photos during a nor’easter in 2015. Rain and wind events like these are increasingly leading to flooding within the Inland Bays watershed.

The devastation occurring in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey should be sobering for all of us who live in coastal communities. (Find out how you can support recovery efforts here.)

Unfortunately, we know that disasters like this are only going to become more frequent, and more damaging. Climate change is making powerful storms more likely while sea level rise is making communities close to sea level more vulnerable.

If you’ve lived at or been visiting the Delaware beaches for a long time, you’ve probably noticed some changes in recent decades. There are a lot more people, there are many great new restaurants, and, flooding is becoming more common. No longer the hallmark of the most severe storms, nuisance flooding in the Inland Bays watershed is becoming increasingly common, caused simply by a combination of higher high tides and wind-driven waters.

What is the cause?

Sea level rise is broadly driven by two key trends, both of which are attributable to climate change: 1. A warming atmosphere is also warming our oceans – as sea water becomes warmer, it expands and; 2. Warmer air temperatures, particularly at the poles, are causing land-based ice to melt. 

On the Delmarva Peninsula there is a third driver in play: Subsidence. Land subsidence quite simply means that the land underneath your feet is slowly sinking. Subsidence, combined with expanding sea water and melting ice, makes Delmarva a global hot spot for sea level rise.

The bayside of Dewey Beach often floods during storms, an issue that the CIB is working with the town to mitigate.

What can be done?

This means that for those of us living in coastal communities, we need to figure out how to cope with sea level rise.. Strategies to respond to sea level rise fall into four categories: Avoid, Accommodate, Protect and Retreat.

Avoiding sea level rise is the easiest – this means that going forward, we can avoid putting new developments or infrastructure in places that we know are vulnerable to future flooding.

Accommodating sea level rise means learning to live with periodic flooding. An example of this would be building homes on pilings so that flood waters can pass underneath.

Protecting infrastructure involves a number of strategies with which you may already be familiar, and some which you may not. This includes things like adding bulkheading, nourishing beaches or, preferably, implementing a Living Shoreline to protect property.

Retreating is the last option – and one that for many homeowners is the least palatable. But an unfortunate reality is that as sea level rise continues apace, there will be some places that we can no longer inhabit.

It is important for us to keep these strategies in mind as our coastal community continues to grow. With some smart planning and attention to science and changes to our environment, Delmarva will continue to be a great place to live, work and play.


Posted Under: Staff Blog