The South Carolina Small Business Chamber launches SCBARS (South Carolina Businesses Acting on Rising Seas) Phase 2 today. The below story from Climate Central demonstrates the importance of small businesses being involved on this issue. Read more about SCBARS at SCBARS.org.
The Front Lines of Climate Change: Charleston’s Struggle
by Bobby Magill
January 9, 2014
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Local legend has it that the Atlantic Ocean begins here, where the Ashley and Cooper rivers come together to form Charleston harbor, overlooked by a city skyline dotted with church steeples and stately old homes.
Geographically, Charleston is the capital of the South Carolina Lowcountry, a city weaved from marshy islands and peninsulas. The Atlantic has long sent floodwaters into streets at high tide, particularly where wetlands and creeks were filled centuries ago to make room for development. The city is notorious for flooding during storms that drop more than an inch of rain, flooding made worse by the tides and rising water tables and sea levels.
Situated in the middle of the South Carolina coast and steeped in history, the city played a major role in the American Revolution and was the site of the first battle of the Civil War in 1861. Today, the Charleston area is home to nearly 700,000 people, a busy seaport ranked eighth in the nation for value of cargo handled and a popular tourist destination for its prominent place in American history, its charm and its beautiful beaches.
Charleston is also among the East Coast’s most vulnerable metropolitan areas to rising seas and a changing climate, which may threaten nearly $150 billion of infrastructure along the South Carolina coast. In the past century, the Atlantic has risen more than a foot along the coast near here and could rise an additional 5 feet by 2100, according to research on climate change’s impact on the Southeast released in November and used as part of the Third National Climate Assessment.
Climate change will touch every American community in some way. Water may become more and more scarce for Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix and snow may decrease in the Sierra Nevada and the mountains of the Southwest. Sea level rise threatens to inundate low-lying Miami and other coastal cities. Snowpack in the Colorado mountains could melt earlier and faster, making water more difficult to capture for both drinking and agriculture. New York may be more vulnerable to hurricanes and other extreme weather.
These are the places that dominate the news. But while New York City and South Florida are developing plans to withstand and adapt to a warming world, most Americans do not live in the biggest metro areas. How those many disparate communities across the country plan or fail to plan for what’s ahead will determine how well they weather climate change.
Charleston, a vulnerable city in a region highly skeptical of climate change, symbolizes the challenges many smaller cities face. Here, the difficulty in acknowledging the reality and science behind climate change itself complicates planning for the risks it poses.
A City At Risk
Climate change is a significant threat to the Lowcountry. Today, high tides flood the edges of the city — tidal flooding that has destroyed homes on barrier islands south of the city. Scientists are unsure if the Lowcountry will become wetter or drier because of climate change, but the future is likely to be much warmer in the Charleston area, which could see an additional 30 days of temperatures higher than 95°F by 2070.
Up to 5 feet of sea level rise will threaten the richness of the Lowcountry’s estuarine ecosystems, with marshlands stressed by seawater inundation. Beach erosion will need more remediation, and there will be tax implications for landowners who lose property to rising seas. All development along the coast will become endangered by hurricane storm surges made more severe by higher sea levels. Costs to modify roadways to withstand sea level rise could mount up to $3 million per lane mile.
That is what scientists believe is in store for the Lowcountry in the coming decades, said Kirstin Dow, a climate hazards and vulnerability specialist and associate professor of geography at the University of South Carolina, and co-editor of the 2013 “Climate of the Southeast United States” technical report submitted for the Third National Climate Assessment.
“It’s important if you’re living on the coast or near the coast or interested in the economic well-being of South Carolina to pay attention to what’s happening here,” she said. “The threats are real. We’re going to see it in the cost of maintaining structures on the coasts. It’s not something we’re going to be able to escape.”
The way rain falls in the area is also changing, and the city’s drainage system is struggling to keep up, said College of Charleston biologist Phil Dustan, who studies the ecological effects of sea level rise in the region.
“Every time it rains, it floods,” he said, adding that the region gets the same amount of rain annually, but it falls in fewer but more intense rain storms. That is consistent with climate change-related trends across the U.S. and much of the Northern Hemisphere. “Rain bombs,” he said, overwhelm the city’s low-lying areas and the city’s drainage system.
Charleston has several floodwater pump stations that slowly drain the flooded streets, pumping the water into tunnels 140 feet below ground, sending the water beneath the Charleston Harbor.
But that system can only do so much, and even though it can handle a lot of water, it takes time to drain all the streets.
“It’ll handle a 10-year storm event — 6.8 inches of rain in a 24-hour period,” Charleston Public Service Director Laura Cabiness said. “Really, if you think about what happens in Charleston, these nuisance floodings happen several times a year.”
As the climate changes, the Lowcountry can expect to see rain fall more intensely in short periods of time, something rainfall data is already beginning to show as “rain bombs” become more frequent, Dustan said.
The past two decades have seen increases in extreme precipitation events across the entire region, and urban areas are particularly at risk of flooding because there are many impervious surfaces, forcing water to run off pavement, according to the “Climate of the Southeast United States” technical report.
In Charleston, marshy areas that were filled for new development see the most flooding and get the brunt of the effects of a rising sea. In some areas, the land is actually sinking naturally as sediments — either soil deposited naturally or by humans to create more land to build on — compact over time. When land sinks, it increases the average level of the sea relative to the surface of the land in a specific area.
“All these fill areas are subject to subsidence, so not only are you getting increased tidal elevations, you’re getting subsidence of the land,” Cabiness said, adding that when streets in those areas are rebuilt, they’re often built higher than they were before, sometimes by a foot or more to account for future sinking.
Beachfront and marsh erosion has long been a problem near Charleston, and despite efforts to renourish beaches and stabilize beachfront homes, it is a losing battle with nature and a rising Atlantic, though that is occurring in some areas more than others, Dustan said.
“The long-term impacts from loss of land are a huge risk, especially as marshfront property owners inevitably harden shorelines to protect what they have and marshes lose the ability to migrate inland,” said Jessica Whitehead, coastal communities hazards adaptation specialist at the North Carolina Sea Grant at North Carolina State University and former coastal climate extension specialist for the South Carolina Sea Grant.
Action and Inaction
Sea level rise is also a serious concern for the Charleston area’s coastal wetland ecosystems, which are likely to see habitat loss, seawater encroachment, flooding and harm to water quality, according to a report the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources published in 2013, outlining the ecological challenges the state faces in a changing climate.
The report — released amid political turmoil within the agency partly because of its explicit admission that climate change is both real and manmade — makes clear that climate change’s impact on South Carolina will be dramatic and dangerous.
Among its findings: Some aquatic species could disappear from the state entirely. Algae blooms could destroy marsh grass along the coasts, poison shellfish and “bioaccumulate” toxins in the food chain, potentially killing both wildlife and humans. Biological “dead zones” could appear in coastal waters. Coral reefs could be harmed. Coastlines will continue to erode. And so on.
About halfway through the 101-page report, on page 56, the Department of Natural Resources declared this:
“Interest in the effects of climate change in the Southeast is increasing, but there are any number of impediments to understanding and predicting climate change, including public apathy and a lack of awareness, lack of outreach on adaptation options, lack of uniform access to information on current climate change risks and a lack of guidance on what information and tools are available.
“Climate change documentation and development of adaptation strategies also are limited primarily by a lack of funding, a lack of political will and a lack of government leadership. Leadership issues may be a result of division of authority across topics as well as geographic and political boundaries across federal, state and municipal governments. All of these factors impede development of effective climate change adaptation policies across the Southeast.”
After sending the report to Climate Central, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officials did not respond to requests for comment about it.
“When the DNR comes out and says something like that, it’s huge,” Dustan said. “It’s bigger than you can ever imagine.”
Dustan said the report’s direct acknowledgement of climate change and its possible effects was welcome change in a state government long resistant to drawing connections between human activity and climate.