Cape Hatteras Houses Collapse into Ocean: Is this the future of sea level rise?

When it comes to sea level rise damaging beachfront real estate, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is the canary in the coal mine. The thin, sandy barrier island is infamous for losing houses to the sea whenever there’s a hurricane or strong tropical storm.

Now, before hurricane season even begins, houses in Rodanthe, south of Nag’s Head, are being swept out to sea. The National Park Service says three houses have been lost to the waves since February and another nine are currently at-risk of the same fate.

There are several factors contributing to the string of house collapses. A low pressure system swirling off the Outer Banks is sending powerful waves crashing onto shore. In addition, the barrier island has long experienced erosion due to regular wave action that gets worse whenever a hurricane or tropical storm hits or even passes close to the area.

Experts, however, have predicted that higher seas due to sea level rise would serve to intensify and speed up the erosion and house destruction, which only makes sense. Higher seas scour away sand more quickly and effectively. They also mean storm surges will travel further inland with more punch. In addition, the warming of the oceans and atmosphere due to climate change is super-charging hurricanes and tropical storms, which means they pack a stronger wallop.

Home loss on the Outer Banks is also due to the unique geology of barrier islands. In their natural state, the narrow sandy strands are meant to migrate inland as sea level rises. The Park Service is allowed to protect critical infrastructure, such as roads, but not houses. Even if the Park Service could take steps to shield the houses, such as building seawalls, nature would eventually break through the armor and sweep them out to sea.

It’s important to note here that scientists blame the loss of houses not only on natural forces but also the fact that humans never should have built the homes on shifting barrier island sand to begin with. Real estate owners and buyers need to carefully consider the consequences of owning real estate on barrier islands and beaches all along the US coast, especially now that sea level rise is in play. One thing’s for sure, houses toppling into the sea are going to become more common as the sea level rises and storms intensify in the decades to come.

(Photo Credit: National Park Service)

Florida’s New Statewide Office of Resilience Gets Sea Level Rise Half Right

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation to create a new Statewide Office of Resilience. The office is charged with creating an action plan to protect the state highway system from sea level rise flooding. It’s also responsible for creating a prioritize list of sites, such as medical centers, airports, utilities and emergency operation centers, that need to be hardened against rising seas.

The new law strengthens a 2021 law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a sea level rise resilience plan and a grant program to help cities and counties pay for infrastructure improvements.

While Florida officials should be applauded for taking the initiative and combatting the sea level rise that threatens coastal cities and towns, there’s a glaring omission. The law does nothing to reduce the burning of coal, oil and natural gas as well as agricultural sources of greenhouse gases that are driving global warming and sea level rise. This is kind of like working to put out a house fire without addressing the arsonist who’s flipping matches at it. This oversight will ultimately prove costly and disastrous for a low elevation state with coastal communities that are already flooding due to sea level rise and ever-stronger storm surges.

Florida’s half-way there on climate change and sea level rise. With billions of dollars worth of real estate under threat of inundation, let’s hope the state takes the next step and addresses what’s driving the problem.

New Hawaii Law Requires Sea Level Rise Threat Disclosure in Coastal Real Estate Transactions

Beginning this week, property owners selling coastal real estate in Hawaii are required by law to disclose the threat sea level rise flooding poses to a property. According to a State Department of Land and Natural Resources news release, real estate transactions involving properties located on or near the ocean must include the new disclosure. The new disclosure law is in addition to the National Flood Insurance Program’s requirement that sellers notify buyers that a property of interest is located near a flood-prone stream or area that may flood during heavy rainfall events.

According to an article posted on the Hawaii Life Real Estate Brokers website, the new disclosure law is based on modeling performed by researchers at the University of Hawaii. They studied coastal areas at risk from flooding or other damage due to sea level rises, annual high wave flooding, or coastal erosion.

Properties built between current sea level and 3.2 feet of elevation — the potential sea level-driven high water mark at the end of this century — are subject to the new disclosure law. Buyers, sellers and real estate agents can use the state’s interactive map to determine if they’re inside the disclosure zone.

Due to the hodge-podge of state-level sellers disclosure laws, buyers and sellers should always check to see what’s mandated in their area to avoid costly lawsuits and/or purchasing property that’s prone to flooding.

Are Houses on Stilts the Future of Sea Level Rise-Threatened Coastal Real Estate?

Coping with sea level rise flooding and sea level rise-intensified storm surge requires innovation and imagination in the public and private sectors. Among the solutions now being implemented in areas with real estate that floods or soon may experiencing flooding are building and raising seawalls, installing pumps and storm drains, setting aside parks and open lands to absorb and store flood water, and elevating homes, roads and critical infrastructure.

Another option that’s been in use in areas that have long experienced severe beach erosion and storm surge flooding is building houses on stilts. This has been the go-to solution in areas like coastal Louisiana and the Outer Banks of North Carolina for decades. With the oceans continuing to rise and storm surge becoming and even greater threat, areas that didn’t rely on stilts as a solution to protecting houses and other structures are now considering them.

This month, Dezeen — the self-described “world’s most popular and influential architecture, interiors and design magazine” — has a feature article by reporter Ben Dreith about a 4,500 square foot home Brillhart Architecture built on stilts for an owner who owned a house that was heavily damaged during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The modern home is built on stilts that range from very slender to large enough to form circular rooms reinforced with rebar that can also be used as storage spaces. The entire first floor has usable living space and open areas that are all designed to quickly shed flood water.

The article gives a great overview of how a stilts can help a house cope with rising waters. There are limits, however, to their usefullness. For example, a house built on stilts is of little use if the property and surrounding roads are frequently or permanently inundated and/or access to fresh water and sewage service, electricity or other utilities becomes impossible due to flooding. These are the types of issues buyers and owners should ponder when they’re considering building a house on stilts in an area vulnerable to sea level rise flooding and storm surge.

Commercial Real Estate Investors and Developers Need to Consider Sea Level Rise Flooding Risk

Sea level rise is impacting public lands and residential and commercial real estate. Just as residential real estate investors need to consider the threat of sea level rise flooding, commercial real estate buyers and owners need to keep on top of it, too.

A recent article (“What CRE Execs Need to Know About Sea Level Rise and the Law”) written by Anca Gagiuc and published by CommercialSearch.com — a multiple listing service for commercial real estate — takes a detailed look at what commercial real estate buyers and owners should consider when they’re deciding how to proceed in coastal communities. In the article, Gagiuc interviews Emily Lamond who works in the environmental department at the Cole Schotz law firm.

Lamond says that commercial developers are already responding to sea level rise by raising land elevation, buildings, roads and critical infrastructure. Renters, buyers and mortgage providers are also interested in buildings that can resists or withstand sea level rise flooding.

Other issues explored are who has liability if a property is flooded and damaged to the point that it is essentially totaled. Lamond says typically the owners are responsible for demolishing and removing damaged buildings. She recommends that owners review their insurance policies to see what’s covered in this situation and also prepare for the possibility of unexpected costs.

Lamond touches on several other points that commercial and residential real estate buyers and owners should consider when evaluating property located in coastal communities threatened by or currently experiencing sea level rise flooding. The entire interview is definitely worth a look.

Latest UN Climate Change Report is Bad News For Real Estate Threatened by Sea Level Rise and the World in General

The Unite Nation’s climate science panel released a report this week that was bad news for real estate subject to sea level rise, wildfires, drought and other environmental threats tied to global warming.

Researchers found that humans continue to burn more and more fossil fuels, which releases ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases, at a time when we need to drastically reduce output. At the current rate of emissions, we’re set to blow through the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase limit past reports set for this century. We’re headed for 3.2 degrees Celsius. At this point, even if nations realize their past greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, the world would still see 2.2 degrees or more of warming.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report that estimated US coastal cities and towns would see an average of a foot of sea level rise between now and 2050. That estimate was based on 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. If the globe warms much faster than that, the ocean will expand much faster and glaciers and ice sheets primarily in Greenland and Antarctica will melt faster contributing to faster and greater than predicted sea level rise.

U.S. coastal communities and private real estate owners are already spending billions of dollars to fend off sea level rise-driven floodwaters. They’re building and raising seawalls, installing pumps to remove floodwater, elevating land, homes, and government and commercial buildings, and hardening and/or elevating infrastructure, such as roads, sewer and water pipes and underground energy and communications equipment. If humans don’t drastically reduce their reliance on fossil fuels — such as coal, oil and natural gas — these projects won’t be enough. Last-resort measures such as managed retreat — property buyouts in flooded areas — will increasingly become the norm.

Faster and higher sea level rise will not only lead to more frequent tidal flooding of vulnerable coastal areas, it will also result in more powerful storm surges being driven further inland. All together, this will apply incredible pressure on the already strained insurance and mortgage markets in coastal communities.

UN report researchers say we need to cut all greenhouse gas emissions in half by the next decade. The best way to do this is by relying more heavily on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses and energy conservation practices also play an important role.

Fortunately, these goals are within reach. For example, the cost per unit of solar energy is 85% less than it was in 2010. The cost per unit of wind power is 55% cheaper.

The X factor in all of this is our political will and personal commitment to changing our habits to achieve these objectives. The world’s nations have been less-than-honest about the efforts and results they’ve achieved so far in the fight against climate change, global warming, and sea level rise. Not being forthright with the facts is dangerous for us all. The simple fact is when we gaslight Earth, we’re the ones who get burned. The planet’s chemistry and physics are well-established, and the its rules can’t be broken without resulting in a world that is inhospitable to human life.

UN scientists say we have a very narrow and quickly closing window of opportunity to fend off the worst case global warming scenario. Each and every one of us has a role in preventing that outcome.

Survey Reveals Why Coastal Real Estate Buyers Don’t Take Sea Level Rise Seriously

Despite the threat sea level rise poses to coastal communities, buyers continue to line up and pay ever-higher prices for properties located in at-risk areas. Why don’t real estate buyers take sea level rise flooding into account when they’re purchasing coastal real estate? Risa Palm, senior vice president, provost and professor of urban geography at Georgia State University, and Toby Bolsen, a political science professor at the same school, surveyed 680 Florida Realtors in 2020 to find out.

In an article published last week on The Conversation website, Palm and Bolsen shared the results of their survey. They found that buyers in general aren’t considering a property’s risk of sea level rise flooding for the following reasons:

1. Mortgage lenders and appraisers aren’t considering sea level rise risk when they evaluate a property so homebuyers aren’t paying a penalty for buying at-risk properties.

2. Wealthier buyers who pay cash can self-insure so they don’t feel the bite of higher flood insurance premiums.

3. Wealthier buyers can take the steps necessary — such as elevating property and building seawalls — to fend off sea level rise floodwaters.

4. Retired buyers are ok with enjoying coastal property for the remainder of their lives and not worrying about what sea level rise does to it after they’re gone.

Only a tiny number of the agents reported that prices were “very frequently” holding steady or falling due to the risk of flooding and that lenders were frequently denying loans to properties located in flood-prone areas. Ultimately, 70 percent of the agents said “they expect little impact on the property market in the next five to 10 years.”

Palm and Bolsen believe coastal real estate buyers are making a mistake in not taking sea level rise into account when they’re purchasing properties. They write: “Because of rising sea levels and storm risks resulting from climate change, we conclude that many of the houses currently being sold in south Florida will not outlast their 30-year mortgages without damage or expensive adaptations, and that the resale of houses vulnerable to sea level rise is very likely to become increasingly difficult.”

Hopefully, their message will be heard.

Study: Will The Wealthy Displace Working Class Residents From Their Traditional Inland Neighborhoods When Sea Level Rise Floods Coastal Real Estate?

Sea level rise flooding, like all natural disasters, tends to harm the people who can least afford it the most. In many cases, low income residents tend to own coastal real estate that isn’t well-protected from rising seas and they may be forced by high costs to go without flood insurance. A new study released this week concluded that low income residents inland from the coast could also face extreme hardship as wealthier coastal real estate owners are forced to abandon their properties and move inland.

The study, titled “Addressing Climate Driven Displacement: Planning for Sea Level Rise In Florida’s Coastal Communities and Affordable Housing in Inland Communities in the Face of Climate Gentrification”, was produced by The Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University. Researchers operated on the assumption that the day will arrive — likely toward the end of this century — when investing in expensive infrastructure — such as elevating properties and installing pumps — will no longer be enough to save sea level rise-inundated coastal properties. When this happens, they predict that higher income coastal residents will move inland to the higher elevation areas now inhabited by working class Floridians.

As they do this, lower income residents will “face increasing pressures to relocate, either voluntarily (eg. selling their homes and businesses) or involuntarily (eg. being evicted for redevelopment projects or unable to afford increasing rents). Experts refer to the process of the wealthy forcing out working class residents as “climate gentrification”.

The study’s researchers said they examined the issue to see if Florida communities are preparing for this type of population displacement. What they found is that with coastal displacement more likely to occur later in this century, local governments aren’t doing anything now to address the inequity that will likely occur when wealthy real estate owners begin to move inland from the coast. They’re calling on “Florida’s policy makers, planners, public officials, advocates, and developers (to) lay the groundwork for a more equitable transition to a new reality imposed by climate change and sea level rise.”

In their conclusion they write: “Florida’s coastal communities can buy time before coastal displacement is overwhelming and shore up policies and investment in lower income neighborhoods to minimize future displacement through gentrification there. It is an imperfect solution to an insurmountable problem, but it reduces the pace and scale of the disruption and reduces the harm faced by those who are likely to suffer most.”

As a resident of South Florida, I’m already seeing gentrification taking place, not due to sea level rise, but due to wealthy northerners’ insatiable hunger for South Florida real estate. The city I live in is upgrading the infrastructure in traditionally working class neighborhoods located inland not to protect the affordable housing there but to make it easier for developers to purchase properties and build higher end housing there. Lower income property owners forced to compete with the wealthy in this situation are also made more vulnerable to displacement by property taxes that rise as their real estate appreciates, escalating insurance costs, and general inflation for things like home maintenance, food and utilities.

This harsh reality makes it easy to imagine that climate gentrification will become a reality when coastal areas can no longer be defended from sea level rise flooding. The researchers state in their report that they’re not sure there’s the political will present to protect the working class from being displaced. From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist and certainly not on the scale that’s needed. It will be interesting to see if the will to protect the working class — who are needed for a healthy economy — develops as lower income residents are increasingly displaced by people moving here from out of state. If it does, it may increase the odds of a more equitable retreat from the coast due to sea level rise in the coming decades.

New CO2 Emissions Record is Bad News for Sea Level Rise and Real Estate

A few weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a startling report that predicted the US coastline would see on average a foot and up to 18 inches of sea level rise by 2050. The agency said the next 50 years of potential sea level rise after that will be heavily influenced by the amount of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — that’s burned, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and causing it to continue warming up. This week, the long-term sea level rise outlook took a turn for the worse when a report was released that said the world reached a record for CO2 emissions in 2021.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), an autonomous intergovernmental organization that helps countries shape energy policies, analyzed public and private energy and economic data to reach the conclusion that “global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose by 6% in 2021 to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level”. The IEA blamed the increase in CO2 emissions on the global economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and an increased reliance on coal when the price of natural gas spiked.

The IEA said in a press release that the “world must now ensure that the global rebound in emissions in 2021 was a one-off and that an accelerated energy transition contributes to global energy security”.

The recent NOAA report explained why reducing, not increasing, emissions is critically important to coastal communities. The report said: “About 2 feet (0.6 meters) of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date. Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5-5 feet (0.5-1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5-7 feet (1.1 – 2.1 meters) by the end of this century.”

It’s important to note here that the government researchers admitted that they’re still not exactly certain what impact sudden changes in glacial ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica could have on sea level rise in the decades to come. An ice shelf collapse that results in a sudden release of land based-glaciers into the ocean in Antarctica or a rapid acceleration in the melting of land-based snow and ice in Greenland could lead to a faster than predicted increase in sea level rise.

The bottom line here is that if humans don’t radically cut back on the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all of the sea level rise predictions could turn out to be dangerously conservative. The first one foot of human-driven sea level rise is costing coastal communities — and residential and commercial real estate owners — billions of dollars to repair flood damage and prevent additional damage. The next foot of sea level rise in the next 30 years will certainly compound the problem. Add more on top of that and a lot of coastal real estate will become uninhabitable.

What Does a Foot or More of Predicted Sea Level Rise Mean in Real Real Estate Terms?

The foot or more of sea level rise government scientists recently predicted coastal cities and towns will see by 2050 doesn’t sound like much, especially if you live in a community that isn’t being impacted by the first foot of sea level rise that’s accumulated in the last hundred years. To people who own real estate located in areas that are now experiencing sea level rise flooding and those in the red zone targeted by the next foot, it’s a huge deal. I live in South Florida, and I’m witnessing firsthand what sea level rise flooding can do to a coastal community.

The Union of Concerned scientists predicted that an additional foot of sea level rise will put 140,000 homes at risk of flooding every other week. This means coastal cities and towns are going to have to step up their efforts to fend off floodwaters by, among other things, building higher seawalls, installing pump systems, elevating roads and other critical infrastructure, expanding flood-water absorbing wetlands, and replenishing eroded beaches.

Private real estate owners, too, are going to have to be more diligent in taking steps to protect their properties. More and more of them are going to have to install, reinforce or heighten seawalls and elevate docks, structures and entire homes. In condo communities, owners face the specter of higher association fees and special assessments to cover the cost of protecting common areas and buildings from flooding.

In cases where sea level rise floodwaters cannot be held back, private property owners are going to face a host of problems. As owners of real estate located in neighborhoods that flood now can attest, typically the first sign of sea level rise is seawater collecting on roadways or rising up out of storm drains that would normally drain into the ocean, a harbor or other waterway. Sounds like a minor problem, until you have to park blocks away from your home and wade through the water to reach your front door. Driving through seawater is out of the question. The salt is extremely corrosive to vehicles.

The next step in the typical sea level rise flooding progression is floodwater collecting on a property, where it can rend septic systems inoperable, pollute freshwater wells, and damage landscaping and exterior structures. In cases where the seawater enters a home, the costs can be devastating. FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program website has a flood damage calculator that estimates an inch of water alone can cause nearly $27,000 damage to a 2,500 home. A foot of floodwater can cost over $72,000 to repair.

In extreme cases, local governments are determining that it’s no longer cost-effective to maintain and rebuild roads and critical infrastructure to serve properties that are repeatedly inundated. Officials are insisting on buyouts, where they pay an owner fair market value to abandon their homes. It’s important to note that buyouts are expensive and only possible where federal and state funding is available. It’s uncertain how long the government will be able to afford buyouts. If the funding dries up, real estate owners could be left with properties that regularly flood, aren’t insurable, and are impossible to sell.

The immediate coastline isn’t the only place at risk from sea level rise. In areas like South Florida that are built on porous limestone or Honolulu that are built on porous volcanic rock, higher seas can push seawater inland underground. The dense seawater, in turn, can force the fresh water table upward toward the surface where it saturates soils. This can create three problems: 1) Unable to absorb rainwater, the saturated soils can cause surface flooding; 2) Septic systems that rely on dry soil to filter impurities can become inoperable when saturated soils can’t handle any more water; and 3) Fresh water well systems can become polluted by saltwater making them unusable.

Beyond the physical problems floodwater presents to coastal communities, private property owners also have to keep an eye on trends in the property tax, insurance and mortgage sectors. Coastal communities are fighting for federal and state funding to pay for sea level rise control projects. When the money runs short, local taxpayers will have to cover the bill for flood prevention projects.

The National Flood Insurance Program is already in the process of making sure that owners of properties most at-risk of flooding pay higher premiums. And, after the tragic condo building collapse last summer in Surfside, Florida, mortgage backers Fannie May and Freddie Mac are now forcing condo associations to answer detailed questions about building maintenance and the level of reserve funds available to cover routine maintenance and repairs. In instances where buildings are deemed to be poorly maintained, short on cash, or unsafe, lenders will be barred from issuing mortgages. This new policy is already wreaking havoc in the South Florida condo market, where closings are being delayed due to the stringent requirements. The threat is compounded by the fact that even cash buyers can be forced to show that they will be able to get a mortgage if they don’t have enough resources to cover the cost of a condo.

With all of these factors in play, it’s clear that the prospect of another foot of sea level rise is something that real estate owners and buyers can no longer afford to shrug off and ignore. Every additional inch of water that accumulates between now and 2050 is going to compound the challenges faced by coastal communities. Due diligence — staying up to date on the latest developments and responding appropriately — is the only way to protect real estate investments.

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