Buying a house in a place you love is a hopeful act that suggests permanence, or at least the expectation of it. This was the case when we bought our house in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I know we may move at some point, but I can also envision myself devoting years to fixing the place up until it’s just the way I want it. I can envision my kids leaving me with this empty nest. I can envision myself growing old in my little house by the coast. But, even though I never gave this a thought when we bought the place, I must consider the possibility that the place may force me out.
This area of the country is known as the Lowcountry for a reason–the coastal plain rises slowly and leisurely out of the Atlantic, in no hurry to achieve any considerable elevation. I live about twenty-five feet above sea level in a region that two hundred years ago was a swamp. Damming and delineation have created dry land, but the seas are changing. Matt and I often joke that our house will be beachfront before long, but the joke isn’t all that funny, because it very well could be.
Who knows what will happen in the future? No one can say for sure what the sea will bring. But human society has figured out what to expect. In an effort to find out what the science says, I found that in 2011 the best estimation was that the sea level in the southeastern United States will rise about 2.6 feet by 2100. This estimate, the author of the study notes, is probably low.
Earlier this year, another researcher who has monitored water levels at stations up the eastern seaboard found that sea levels started a rising trend in 1987 and the rate is accelerating every year. The report compares sea level rise to credit card debt. So the more the sea rises, the more the sea rises, and every time you look, the problem seems worse.
What happens when the sea does claim more land for itself? The shoreline erodes, compromising any structures we’ve built along the beaches. According to research that the EPA compiled under the Bush Administration (but was not allowed to publish), 1,000 square miles of the east coast will become uninhabitable. Much of that was, at the time of the study, and probably still is, zoned for development by local governments, despite warnings. Where there are no human structures, the natural ecosystems could be pushed back by the rising water. So if there are dunes or marshes, they would move inland. Again, this isn’t a problem as long as the property isn’t developed and there’s room for the natural migration of the ecosystems that protect the coast.
The sea rise data and reports the EPA collected and compiled, although the government still hasn’t published them, are posted on the web site risingsea.net, which is maintained by Jim Titus, the EPA researchers heading the project. There’s an amazing amount of information there, and if you live on the east coast, you might want to look at it. The information is broken down by county.
In one report, he basically looked at all the Atlantic coastal states and predicted what would befall them when the seas rise. Would the government pay to save the shoreline with barriers? Would the land and human structures built along the sea be given over to the swelling body of water? Would property owners be left to fend for themselves? Places like Hilton Head Island, where much of the beachfront property is located within gated, private communities, would not qualify for government aid to protect the coast. Given the high property values on Hilton Head, however, the report suggests the wealthy folks will most likely find a way to protect their own property.
The places that aren’t developed, such as Hunting Island State Park north of Beaufort, probably won’t be protected, the report said. In other words, nature will be allowed to take her course. Hunting Island has always been a transient place. A naturalist who lead a kayak tours there once told me the tides, cycle by cycle, have been eroding one side of the island and depositing the sand on the other, migrating it inch by inch.
Now, losing a few feet of oceanfront property doesn’t sound so bad. Woe for the people who live in the highly developed areas; but the beaches and dunes are wide where I live, and I’m certainly not close enough to the beach to be immediately concerned. Alas, I may not actually be sitting on a piece of future beachfront after all. But sea level rise in itself is only part of the story. The other part is weather. When the shoreline is already pushed back three feet, it’s like giving hurricane storm surges a head start at flooding the coast.
The topic of climate change tends to wax and wan, at least in political conversation (and no doubt because of the politics involved); last year was a perfect example. In the months leading up to last year’s election, the phrase “climate change” hadn’t entered the presidential debate, although some of the…lesser…candidates tried to say it didn’t exist. Then came Hurricane Sandy. Now, after seeing the $50 billion price tag of severe weather, 2012 may go down in history as the year the political world was forced to take climate change seriously.
So will the Lowcountry, as we know it, outlast my little Bluffton home? This area hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 1979 when David just grazed Hilton Head with seventy-mile-an-hour winds. I wasn’t even born then. But we can’t predict the weather of the future based on the weather of the past. Every year, we review our evacuation plans and stock up the hurricane cabinet. I wonder though if the Lowcountry is as prepared as we need to be. An article that ran in the Island Packet in 2009 suggested state and local officials aren’t taking the sea level rising problem as seriously as they should.
Perhaps the most foreboding part I read on risingsea.net was an insight from Hilton Head’s favorite local hero Charles Fraser. Here I’m quoting Titus: “At the nation’s first conference on responses to future sea level rise, the developer of Hilton Head, South Carolina argued that it would probably take a hurricane to motivate people to take sea level rise seriously (Fraser 1984).”