Georgia's new coast, courtesy of climate change 

Now's the time to start planning how to adapt to sea level rise

HIGHER GROUND: Sea level rise caused by climate change will inundate some areas along the Georgia coast, including River Street in Savannah

Courtesy Savannah Riverfront

HIGHER GROUND: Sea level rise caused by climate change will inundate some areas along the Georgia coast, including River Street in Savannah

Next time you visit Savannah and stroll along the river, imagine that the spot where you're standing is underwater. River Street's shops and restaurants are shuttered not because of a flood, but because this is the new normal. According to a recent student study we conducted looking at climate change's effects on Georgia's coast, this will be reality in the next century. It's time to address the issue.

Sea level rise caused by climate change is one of the biggest — and in some cases, most overlooked — challenges facing coastal communities. With more than half of the world's population living less than 100 miles from the ocean, sea level rise poses a substantial threat to human civilization.

The loss of life, homes, and other buildings, including historic structures and devastated infrastructure, are among the negative social and economic effects. There's also the loss of important coastal wetlands and habitats. If coastal communities plan and develop strategies to adapt to these changes, they might mitigate future losses and construct sustainable communities.

Funded by the Georgia Conservancy at Georgia Tech's City Planning Program, the study examined the effects of sea level rise on coastal Georgia's Chatham, Liberty, and McIntosh counties. The area contains 11 of the coast's 17 barrier islands and is home to more than 300,000 people.

Savannah in Chatham is the region's economic engine. Tybee Island is the most developed barrier island and a tourism destination. McIntosh's Sapelo Island is home to one of the longest-lasting communities of the Gullah/Geechee, an African-American ethnic group with West African cultural ties.

To conduct our analysis, we used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's conservative estimate of a 1 meter — or 39.4 inches — rise in sea level by 2110. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner is an internationally accepted authority that bases its assessments primarily on peer reviewed and published scientific literature. We assessed impacts on present conditions using models developed by the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

What we found: What once was inland would become waterfront. Nearly 31 percent of the land in the three counties, roughly 419 square miles, will be inundated by sea level rise. More than 20,000 households and more than 50,000 people — 85 percent of them in Chatham — will be submerged.

Thirty percent of the impacted population are non-white, 15 percent are older than 64, 7 percent lack a high school education, 11 percent are single-parent families, and 11 percent are children. People without sufficient educations, with disabilities, or with medical limitations will have substantial difficulties coping. Job losses will exceed 6,950; more than one-third of these will be held by African-Americans.

The greatest physical impact will be on wetlands; which is more more than 50 percent of the land projected to be affected. Many wetland areas are endangered and extremely rare habitats.

McIntosh will see the largest percentage — nearly 20 percent — of inundated residential land. One-third of the land area Darien is projected to become inundated. Nearly 9,000 buildings in Chatham would be lost, a substantial amount — and more than Liberty and McIntosh's losses combined.

Buildings valued at nearly $3 billion would be lost, and 79 percent of these losses will be residential structures. Three-quarters of the residential units lost in the region will be in Chatham, and spread between Savannah, its suburbs, and Tybee Island. Almost one-half of Tybee Island's developed land will be underwater, including 39 percent of its residential land. The historic Gullah/Geechee settlement on Sapelo Island will be nearly completely inundated, and settlements in Pin Point and Sandfly will be threatened.

The majority of Savannah's historic district won't be inundated. But much of the commercial district adjacent to the Savannah River along River Street is threatened. These structures form the foundations for buildings above and along Bay Street. The impacts could be significant. Six miles of U.S. 80 to Tybee Island will be inundated, thereby preventing access to the island. Approximately 11 miles of rail segments to the Port of Savannah will be underwater, preventing a connection with the Port's multimodal terminal.

Absent drastic global policy changes, stopping the seas from rising is extremely difficult, if outright impossible. Conceptually, responses to increasing sea level are feasible. These can range from attempting to hold the increase back — what we call "full protection" efforts — to a managed and considered retreat from the coast.

All the responses involve substantial social, political, economic, and fiscal issues and consequences. If governments and communities are going to make intelligent, equitable, and fiscally responsible adaptations, extensive public education prior to planning and policy changes is key.

"Full protection" solutions, all of which are expensive and have ripple effects, include dikes, levees, seawalls, and bulkheads. More complex efforts could include: elevating coastal structures; restructuring land uses (always controversial); and even relocating, protecting, or rebuilding critical infrastructure. Historic resources could be protected or moved. The federal government's (actuarially unsound) National Flood Insurance program could be restructured. Two environmentally sound responses involve channeling growth and development of out of harm's way. Or creating regional wetland migration corridors, which could maintain some of the protections they provide.

Full retreat would involve very complex and contentious decisions regarding who and what goes where — and who pays.

The time to start considering these difficult questions is now. Storm surges from passing hurricanes and/or an actual hurricane landing will accelerate and intensify the gradual impacts we've described. This section of the Georgia coast has not been hit by a major hurricane in many years, and it does enjoy some geographic protection. But it's not immune. It is time to think about responding to these very real eventualities.

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