Editorial: New warnings on sea rise

Charleston Post and Courier
July 3, 2107

Downtown Charleston flooded on roughly one out of every seven days last year. That’s more than just a record-breaking number of tidal inundations, it’s an alarming warning of a much wetter future for the city.

It’s a call to action.

Maybe the 50 flooded days Charleston endured in 2016 represent an outlier. After all, the previous record, set in 2015, was 38 days. It was 11 in 2014.

But whether or not weekly flooding is the new normal, the city is heading in that direction. As in downward.

Charleston is gradually sinking via a tectonic process called subsidence. And the ocean is measurably rising. Water levels in Charleston Harbor have risen about a foot over the past century, and experts predict an even greater increase over the next few decades as ice melts around the world and warmer temperatures cause seawater to expand.

“We know that the rate of sea level rise is increasing, and we know that extreme weather events are increasing,” explained Charleston’s chief resilience officer, Mark Wilbert.

Between the forces of subduction and sea level rise, Charleston can expect as many as 180 tidal flood days per year within the next three decades, according to city studies.

It’s worth noting that Mayor John Tecklenburg recently joined more than 170 other mayors from around the country in pledging to make fighting climate change a municipal priority in the wake of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

More than simply a symbolic gesture, that commitment acknowledges the real and immediate threat climate change poses to Charleston.

Mr. Tecklenburg also created Mr. Wilbert’s part-time position earlier this year to oversee the implementation of the city’s comprehensive sea level rise strategy. It’s the strongest statement yet from city officials that rising tides are a top concern.

And during a climate change roundtable discussion with local leaders last month, the mayor once again made it clear that Charleston will do everything possible to prepare for the threat of higher seas.

That’s a smart approach. After all, many of the city’s other challenges — traffic, housing affordability, balancing a thriving tourism industry with a high quality of life, economic development etc. — are directly and indirectly affected by flooding.


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Mr. Wilbert is currently working with other city officials to put together a list of recommendations for the mayor and City Council to consider regarding the sea level rise plan. He expects to have the recommendations ready to present to the public by the end of the summer.

In the meantime, more than $200 million worth of drainage and flooding management projects are already planned or underway throughout the city. With each major flooding event estimated to cost the city more than $12 million in lost productivity and property damage, those improvements are likely to pay for themselves quickly.

But last year’s record-breaking flooding suggests that the city may need to accelerate efforts to prepare for higher seas and heavier rain.

“Adaptation starts with awareness,” said Mr. Wilbert.

Fortunately, the city of Charleston already seems well aware that sea level rise is a threat. And 50 flooded days ought to be more than enough evidence for anyone still on the fence.


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