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October 2014 Issue

Sea Level Rise and Ocean Acidification Hurt Coastal Economies
Laura Small

The world’s oceans are rapidly changing due to human activity. The oceans absorb 30 percent of the carbon dioxide released from our energy production, transportation and agriculture. The rest goes into the atmosphere, accentuating the greenhouse effect and leading to global warming and melting ice caps. The resulting sea level rise, ocean acidification and systemic changes affect marine life and coastal livelihoods.

Rising sea levels threaten coastal investments and communities by gradually swallowing land and enlarging surges during hurricanes and other coastal storms. In 2010, almost 40 percent of the U.S. population lived in coastal counties, which generated half of U.S. GDP for that year. Sea levels have already increased by 8 inches since 1880, and depending on greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. government estimates sea levels could rise from 1 to 4 feet by century’s end.

There is a one-in-twenty chance that sea level rise will put more than $701 billion of existing coastal property below mean sea levels, with another $730 billion at risk during high tide, according to the Risky Business Project (commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and businessman and environmentalist Tom Steyer). The Risky Business numbers address property risk; beyond that, threats to industry, human services and transportation infrastructure will only increase the price tag of sea level rise.

The first step for communities at risk is to acknowledge the threat. For coastal communities, including Seattle, Washington; Miami, Florida; and Norfolk, Virginia, sea level rise will cause substantial damage if no action is taken. Already, flooding is occurring regularly within the Norfolk-Hampton Roads area. Adaptation measures–such as building sea walls, raising roads and houses, and preserving wetlands–can be taken now to help make cities resilient to future flooding. Companies, especially Dutch ones that have been facing flood risks for centuries, are already maneuvering globally to capitalize on emerging markets for solutions to encroaching water. This includes Dutch Docklands (Delft, Netherlands), which manufactures floating housing developments and opened an office in Florida.

In addition, removing government subsidies for flood insurance is a necessary step to curb the continued development of flood-prone zones. Most homes in flood zones receive insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). After Hurricane Sandy left FEMA with a bill of $24 billion, Congress moved to remove federal subsidies through the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. Signed into law in 2012, Biggert-Waters reformed flood insurance rates to reflect market realities. However, the expired government subsidies proved to have been larger than expected, and some homeowners got a bad case of sticker shock from the real market price of their insurance. Forbes reported that in Greenwich, Connecticut, one family’s insurance cost grew from $458 to $5,500 annually; in Rhode Island, another home’s insurance premium rose from $5,000 to $66,000 a year. Congress backtracked in March 2014, passing the Homeowners Flood Insurance Affordability Act (HFIAA), which restored subsidies and mandated refunds for close to 1 million homeowners. HFIAA should be repealed, and Biggert-Waters or another reform like it reinstated, to stop encouraging development in areas that are high-risk for large storms or land loss. What is clear is that the current model of financing and subsidies is not sustainable.

Another impact of increased carbon emissions is ocean acidification, soapbox which already presents a significant challenge to coastal communities that rely on marine life for food and commerce. Ocean acidification occurs as carbon dioxide reacts with seawater. It reduces the ability of corals and shellfish to build new shells and eats away at their existing bodies. Damage to corals removes vital habitat for fish, with impacts on commercial fishing operations. Fish can also be impacted by acidification’s effects on food, especially pteropods (tiny, free-floating snails). In April 2014, a NOAA study found severe shell dissolution from ocean acidification among 24 percent of offshore pteropods along the west coast of the United States. While littleknown, pteropods play a key role in the ocean food chain, and their decline would hurt valuable fish stocks. So far, the ocean has become 30 percent more acidic than preindustrial levels, and Richard Feely, a senior scientist at NOAA, predicted that by the end of the century oceans will be 100 to 150 percent more acidic.

In February 2014, Island Scallops CEO Rob Saunders announced his company had lost most of the year’s scallop harvest–worth $10 million–due to ocean acidification. “I’m not sure we are going to stay alive, and I’m not sure the oyster industry is going to stay alive,” Saunders said. Island Scallops raises its crop in the Georgia Straight in British Columbia, which has experienced a tenfold increase in acidity. In July 2014, a NOAA study stated that ocean acidification was putting the $4.6 billion Alaskan fishing industry at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in fish stocks.

Ocean acidification can only truly be tackled long term by reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions. But what we can do at this moment is diversify coastal economies that have been heavily dependent on fishing. In addition, protecting marine species from overfishing—already deemed a serious problem by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates a third of fish stocks are overexploited—may help populations weather the ocean’s transition to more acidic conditions.

Laura Small is the Energy and Climate policy associate at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). She writes extensively on climate change, renewable energy and environmental issues, and heads EESI’s flagship weekly newsletter. She graduated from the University of Southern California in 2011, and has also worked at the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.