Flood risk increases for U.S. properties as sea levels continue to rise

Sabri Ben-Achour Aug 25, 2020
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Part of a glacier melting into the sea on Greenland's southeast shore, contributing to the Earth's rising oceans. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Flood risk increases for U.S. properties as sea levels continue to rise

Sabri Ben-Achour Aug 25, 2020
Heard on:
Part of a glacier melting into the sea on Greenland's southeast shore, contributing to the Earth's rising oceans. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images
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New research shows Greenland glaciers melted faster than normal last year — a lot faster than normal. Some scientists say that so far, we’re on track for sea level rise on the high end of what’s been predicted by models. Meanwhile, energy consumption is projected to rise, and so is flood risk.

Greenland’s ice sheet melted more last year than it has since at least the 1940s.

“It lost enough water that it would cover all of California in 4 feet of water,” said Alex Gardner, a research scientist at the national Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-author of the study detailing the ice loss in the journal Communications Earth & Environment. Sea levels are overall rising slowly but steadily, on average a little more than one-eighth of an inch per year, Gardner said. A small amount that adds up. 

“Next time you have a storm come through, that maximum storm surge will now be about a meter higher at the end of the century, and that’s really impactful for coastal communities,” Gardner said.

Sea level rise set a new record for the eighth year straight. New flood models developed by the nonprofit First Street Foundation quantify current and future flood risk to U.S. properties from rising sea level and increased precipitation. Matthew Eby is executive director.

“There’s about 14.6 million properties that have substantial flood risk, a 1% annual risk of flooding or greater,” Eby said.

That’s about 10% of properties, and 6 million more than FEMA’s estimates, which don’t factor in climate change-related increases in precipitation.

“You have another 1.6 million homes across the country that fall in that category by 2050,” Eby said.

Last year had a record number of extreme warm days globally. Jessica Blunden is a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“In 2020, where we are now, we’re on track to [have] record warmth again this year,” Blunden said. “Our records go back to the 1800s, and this is unprecedented — and it’s not going to slow down.”

It most likely will slow down economic growth. The last National Climate Assessment in 2018 predicted unmitigated climate change could shave more than 10% off of U.S. annual GDP by the end of the century. 

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