Climate Central on Tuesday released new maps for the District, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware cataloguing flood risk from climate change. The topline news is that roughly $42 billion worth of property in the region lies within 5 feet of current high tide and is therefore likely to be inundated by storm-related flooding within the next few decades as sea levels rise.
But the maps are more interesting for their local details than for the broad sweep of data. The organization of scientists and journalists is mapping flood risk on the entire U.S. coast, taking note of every school, police station, hospital, museum, roadway and environmental hazard. So it's worth poking around to see what's likely to get hit at various flood levels.
I wrote a whole story about their predictions for D.C. and what local officials are doing about it. You can explore the D.C. map by clicking the image above.
Here's Baltimore, where thinking about sea-level rise is significantly more advanced.
As the map shows, the whole Inner Harbor would be at risk from an 8-foot storm surge, which is projected to be a pretty routine event by the end of the century. As in D.C., Baltimore officials also are worried about flooding from extreme rain events, like the one in April that caused a railroad retaining wall to collapse.
Unlike D.C., which recently hired a team for the first time to begin assessing the city's future vulnerabilities, Baltimore has been on the case for years. City officials pioneered what they call the "Disaster Preparedness Plan" in 2011, telling the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it made no sense to keep assessing risk based on historical data when the future is likely to bring very different dangers.
Kristin Baja, the climate and resilience planner with Baltimore's Office of Sustainability, now spends a lot of time talking to other cities about how to expand their existing FEMA hazard mitigation plan to include sea-level rise and other risks, such as extreme heat, that are likely to get worse in the future. For example, instead of planning for the kind of major flood that occurs every 100 years, Baltimore is planning for a catastrophic 500-year flood -- and then drawing up plans that consider the possibility that a 500-year flood in the future could be as much as 7 feet deeper.
"We're taking a no-regrets approach," Baja said. "To this point, scientists really have been under-projecting what we’re expecting to see. We didn’t want to plan for the minimum and then be caught unawares."
Then there's Ocean City, a town on the coastal front lines.
Yikes. Practically everything west of Baltimore Avenue would be gone with five feet of sea-level rise--which is not an unrealistic projection for the end of this century. And this is nota storm surge of five feet: it's five feet of permanently higher water.
What do you do if you're Ocean City?
City councilman Dennis Dare, who sits on the new "Coast Smart Council," appointed by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to plan for sea-level rise, insists that his city is already doing everything it can. New buildings are required to have two feet of "freeboard," meaning their lowest floor is two feet higher than projected flood levels. In addition, the city nourishes its beaches by pumping in sand, which improves the beach for tourists but can also protect oceanfront dwellings.
Of course, for buildings on the lower-lying bayside of town, those preparations would be useless if the ocean itself were five feet higher. But Dare says he refuses to believe that such dire predictions will come to pass.
"I’m 65 years old. I’m trying to plan for the future. But the future doesn’t mean we have to move Ocean City to Garrett County," Dare said, referring to the Free State's mountainous westernmost juridiction. "Thirty years ago, we sent people to the moon with less technology than you have in your smart phone. The world’s not going to run on fossil fuel forever. I think we'll be able to solve some of these issues before the problem ever evolves to the predictions we're making now."