Government agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area took a dry-eyed look at the threat sea level rise poses to their region and reached this stark conclusion: “Flooding and rising sea level pose a risk to everyone in the Bay Area, from local communities where homes and jobs may flood, to residents who rely on transportation to connect us, keep our economy humming, and potentially play a role in mitigating the impacts of climate change down the line.”
That finding was included in a recently published report titled “Adapting to Rising Tides — Bay Area” that considered what would happen in the region if no effort was made to address climate change and sea level rise flooding.
Drawing on hundreds of data sources, the report authors found that shoreline flooding would impact everyone who lived in the region. “Even if your home is far from the shoreline, the roads, rails and ferries we rely on; the schools, childcare, and hospitals we depend on; the job at which we work; and the beautiful natural areas we love are at risk,” the report said.
Among the dire predictions for real estate in the region, the report said with four feet of flooding over the next 40 to 100 years nearly 13,000 housing units would “no longer be habitable, insurable, or desirable places to live.” It also said 70,000 badly needed new housing units might not be built or will be built outside the area where they’re most needed.
The agencies that produced the report — Caltrans, Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Association of Bay Area Governments, Bay Area Regional Collaborative, and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission — are encouraging Bay Area entities to use it to “plan for rising seas level in a way that preserves and enhances the future for not just a select handful of cities or assets, but for everyone.”
One of the major questions for coastal governments and real estate owners is: How fast will sea level rise flooding advance? According to the latest analysis by the United Nation’s Intragovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the answer is: Likely a lot sooner than we’d hoped.
IPCC scientists analyzed data from Antarctica and Greenland and determined that land-based ice and snow are melting six times faster than they did in the 1990s. This is in line with the group’s worst-case scenario.
At this pace of melting, IPCC experts estimate the oceans will rise nearly 7 extra inches over the 21 inches (1.75 feet) they’ve set as their mid-range global sea level rise prediction for the end of the century. That’s a total of 2 1/4 feet of sea level rise.
Andrew Shepherd, a professor of Earth Observations at the University of Leeds, told the Guardian newspaper that if sea levels rise as predicted in the latest estimate, 400 million people will be impacted by coastal flooding; that’s up from 360 million people earlier predicted. “These are not unlikely events with small impacts,” he told the paper. “They are already under way and will be devastating for coastal communities.”
Land-based ice and snow melting in Greenland and Antarctic contribute about a third of the global sea level rise total. The rest comes from expansion of the oceans as they warm and runoff from smaller glaciers.
Greenland and Antarctica seem like a long way away, but their meltwaters could ultimately decide the fate of billions of dollars worth of coastal real estate. To make informed decisions, property owners in at-risk areas need to keep up to date on the pace of ice and snow melt and the stability of their glaciers.
The California Coastal Commission, the City of Malibu and coastal developer at clashing over a new beach development on the Pacific Coast Highway. One of the major points of contention is estimates of how much the sea will rise by 2100.
The city approved the developer’s plan based on an old sea level rise estimate of 1.5 feet by the turn of the century. The Coastal Commission takes issue with that prediction, which it says will put the property at a greater risk of flooding.
An engineer the city used to evaluate the project approved the 1.5 foot estimate because that was the number the Coastal Commission included in its 2015 guidance document. The Coastal Commission says the engineer should have used its region-specific estimate and updated 2018 guidance.
The gap between the Coastal Commission and the engineer is enormous. The sea level rise estimate was increased to over five feet in 2018. According to an article in the Malibu Times, a Coastal Commission staff report said, “The difference is more than 4.65 feet, which is significant in determining the required setback, finished floor elevation, and safety of the proposed structure from extreme events and sea level rise.” The report also mentions that scientists are now estimating that the seas could rise anywhere from 3.3 feet to 10 feet by the end of the century.
Scientists are having a tough time predicting sea level rise precisely because humans continue to burn the fossil fuels that create the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming at an accelerated rate. If society continues on this track, even the most liberal predictions could turn out to be conservative, especially if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt faster and are destabilized to the point where land-based glaciers flow more rapidly into the sea.
The Malibu case is just one example where real estate developers and cities are relying on the most optimistic sea level rise estimates for new construction projects. Buyers shouldn’t trust that a developer or city has done its homework when they purchase a coastal property. Independent due diligence is required to make sure they’re fully informed regarding the risk of sea level rise flooding in the years to come.
“Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
You might expect to find this doomsday prediction in an op-ed by a rabid environmentalist group. That’s why it’s doubly shocking when you find out it actually appears in a research document leaked from JP Morgan, the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels.
According to a Guardian article, JP Morgan economists David Mackie and Jessica Murray wrote the report, which draws on studies produced at universities and by the International Monetary Fund and UN Government Panel on Climate Change. Rupert Read, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson obtained a copy, which Guardian journalists were allowed to view.
Mackie and Murray write that policy-makers and financial leaders have to change how climate change is being addressed or there’s a chance that the situation will deteriorate faster than now forecast. They also worry that concern about jobs and competitiveness might prevent humankind from taking the necessary steps to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, which creates the greenhouse gases behind global warming and sea level rise.
JP Morgan’s leaked report is only the latest example of an investment firm stating concern about climate change. Earlier this year the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said his firm was moving away from fossil fuels because they’re a poor investment when the world needs to shift to renewables to reduce the release of greenhouse gases.
Buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to take these reports seriously. Their real estate investments are being impacted by climate change and, along the coast, sea level rise flooding. Using the same dry-eyed approach financial institutions are using to evaluate their investments in their real estate decisions is the only way to protect their financial future.