Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bipartisan Group Pushes for Greater Awareness of the Risks of Sea-Level Rise

Louise McCarthy carts her belongings through the fire-charred ruins of the Breezy Point section of Queens after Superstorm Sandy brought floods, fires and blackouts to New York City. New studies show future risks of such storms will be worse. (Credit: Photo by Mark Lennihan / AP Images.) Click to Enlarge.
The Atlantic will sneak up to one of its highest points tomorrow as celestial influences create king tides along the East Coast, three years after similar tides and rising seas added to the huge wall of water that crashed onto the coastline during Superstorm Sandy.

The king tide comes amid new warnings that electric utilities could face serious flooding as low-lying power plants are exposed to higher oceans over the coming decades.  Experts are also concerned that floods reaching farther inland could unlock bacteria that have been stuck in dry soil and spread disease in public waterways.

"There's hundreds of different diseases that can be passed by waterborne fecal contamination," said Chris Sinigalliano, a microbiologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  He's researching whether new flooding in Miami could expose more people to things like cholera and E. coli.

King tides occur in certain areas once or twice a year when the moon is close to Earth.  The gravitational forces can cause water levels to surpass a normal high tide by a foot or more, filling storm pipes in low areas like Miami with placid water and overtopping sea walls.
"Imagine the trillions of dollars at risk from rising seas across the country when you consider the tens of thousands of miles of U.S. coastline facing increasing flooding," New Hampshire state Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Republican who helped organize the event, said in a statement. "Perhaps some of our candidates who are coming into New Hampshire will begin to talk about this and figure out just how we can do it together."

Electric utilities are also underestimating the growing risks to the power grid in coastal areas, warns a study being released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"A large share of the major substations and power plants that provide electricity to more than 70 million coastal residents is already exposed to flooding from hurricanes, nor'easters, or other severe storms," the UCS report says.  "Even more electricity infrastructure stands to be exposed, and to increasing floodwater depths, as seas continue to rise and drive storm surge higher."

The UCS analysis says grid planners misjudge the threat because they are looking backward, not ahead.  Storm preparations and infrastructure defenses are based on estimates of flood hazard zones prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  For the highest-risk flood zones, FEMA assumes that the area will be inundated once every 100 years, UCS said.

Vulnerability creeps higher
But FEMA's estimates, based on historical data, "do not yet incorporate future sea level risk into their designations."  Relying on this view leaves major parts of the grid increasingly vulnerable to "shifting realities," UCS said.

UCS coupled its appeal for stronger grid defenses against extreme weather with a call on utilities and policymakers to speed up the transition to carbon-free sources of electricity and energy-saving strategies, to lessen the impact of rising sea levels and extreme storms affected by global warming.

Read more at Bipartisan Group Pushes for Greater Awareness of the Risks of Sea-Level Rise

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