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Study: Rising Sea Levels Could Cost More Than California's Worst Wildfires

March 13, 2019 1:41 p.m.

GUEST: Patrick Barnard, research director, USGS Climate Impacts and Coastal Processes Team

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Related Story: Study: Rising Sea Levels Could Cost More Than California's Worst Wildfires

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A new U.S. Geological Survey study says the impacts of sea level rise could devastate the coast of California and those impacts are coming fast. By the end of this century the study says destruction from rising sea levels coupled with storms and other coastal threats could be of the same magnitude as some of the country's worst disasters in history. PATRICK Barnard research director of the USGS climate impacts and Coastal Processes team is the lead author of the study as part of our climate change desk. He is joining us on mid-day edition to talk about his findings.

Patrick welcome. Thank you for having me. So sea level rise tends to be characterized as a slow moving disaster but this study says the problem is a lot more urgent. What did you find when you combined sea level rise with other factors like storms and beach erosion.

Yeah that was really the key because we know the coast is not static it's dynamic it evolves through time. Beaches erode cliffs retreat and the sea itself is is dynamic. It moves up and down with tides and storms and so by combining all those dynamic factors with. You the relatively slower moving sea level rise although it is accelerating and we realized that when we translate the impacts of flooding across California communities that those impacts are about three times greater than if we looked at only sea level rise. So by end of century under one of the higher and sea level rise projections which is about 7 feet over six hundred thousand people and one hundred and fifty billion dollars in property which would be exposed to flooding during the most extreme storm event and could you give us an example of how adding those other elements changes the overall flood risk.

Yeah. It literally triples the amount of people at risk when you consider the changing coast and the significant storms that we currently experience along the California coast. And just adding you know even just a little bit of sea level rise say 10 inches which is expected over the next couple of decades can result in tens of billions of dollars in damage across California.

And you know as you know Imperial Beach here in San Diego County is particularly vulnerable to flooding. What did your models show about potential impacts here.

Well Imperial Beach is certainly one of these areas common to California that was built just above sea level the community and is exposed and vulnerable to storms today. And so if you look out into the future you know even with just 25 centimeters of sea level rise or about 10 inches and a storm there's about 46 million dollars of property and damage and Imperial Beach. And if you had another 10 inches that amount doubles to over 90 million. And if you start looking further out to the end of century you know the worst case scenario there there's over 300 million dollars of property at risk and 4000 people I'm exposed and Imperial Beach.

What about the economic impacts you project the destruction could be more than the most costly natural disasters in California history is that right.

That's right. We've tried to relate the impacts of sea level rise and storms to you know known natural disasters in the recent past. For example you know the Loma Prieta earthquake and the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons you know caused on the order about 10 billion dollars in damages. And when we look at the impact of sea level rise and storms those numbers on the order of 100 billion dollars by end of century so about ten times greater than these recent events.

And you know what kind of data and modeling Did you have to do to conduct all this research.

Yes so this is a compilation of work we developed over the last decade or so a point together the state of the science from colleagues in academia and government agency is really across the world to try to bring the best science to bear integrating all of that into this project so that we have the most robust approach to looking at the impacts of sea level rise and storms.

So does this mean previous studies on sea level rise may have underestimated the risk.

That's that's true. Most prior studies just looked at sea level rise like a bathtub. Not considering storms not considering how the coast will change in the future. And in doing so you know we've demonstrated in this study that the impacts are far greater. So what's the best case scenario the best case scenario is that we take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby reducing the amount of temperature over the next century in terms of temperature increases which will also then suppress the amount of sea level rise we can get.

And the hope is then long we have several you know tens of centimeters of sea level rise as opposed to two meters or more. And the the reason that is sort of catastrophic level is two meters of sea level rise is likely to displace on the order of hundreds of millions of people globally.

And how do you hope this study is used by communities along the coast.

Well this this work is based on the assumption that we do nothing. And hopefully it can support. Short term decision making too so we can mitigate and or adapt to these potential impacts in the future. We're currently working with dozens of communities across the state who are making plans now for how to deal with this potential future.

I've been speaking with Patrick Barnard research director of the USGS climate impacts and Coastal Processes team. Patrick thanks. Thank you very much.