Rising sea levels can disrupt millions in US by 2050

Rising sea levels due to global warming are set to disrupt the lives of millions of Americans by 2050, according to a new study. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has found that hundreds of homes, schools, and government buildings will face frequent flooding, significantly affecting daily life. The research predicts that nearly 1,100 critical infrastructure assets essential for coastal communities will experience monthly flooding, with 934 of these assets at risk of flooding every other week. This recurring flooding could render some coastal neighborhoods uninhabitable within the next 20 to 30 years.

Currently, almost 3 million people reside in 703 US coastal communities where crucial infrastructure is at risk of monthly disruptive flooding by 2050. These infrastructures include affordable housing, wastewater treatment facilities, industrial sites, power plants, fire stations, schools, kindergartens, and hospitals. The study anticipates that the number of at-risk critical infrastructure assets will nearly double compared to 2020 levels, even under moderate climate-driven sea level rise scenarios.

California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are the states with the most critical infrastructure needing flood resilience measures or relocation. Within these states, disadvantaged communities, already suffering from historical and current structural racism, discrimination, and pollution, will bear the brunt of frequent flooding. These communities, with higher proportions of Black, Latino, and Native American residents, face significant risks, particularly in public and affordable housing, which is the most vulnerable infrastructure.

Juan Declet-Barreto, a report author and senior social scientist for climate vulnerability at UCS, warns that without prioritizing resilience solutions, the harmful legacy of environmental racism and colonialism will be perpetuated in these already underserved communities. Routine flooding could force vulnerable children to travel farther for school and medical care and could contaminate local water supplies by flooding polluted soil.

The report, “Looming Deadlines for Coastal Resilience,” highlights the critical timing of these findings amid increasing fossil fuel production in major countries and the intensifying frequency and severity of heatwaves, floods, and droughts globally. Slow-onset climate disasters, such as desertification, melting glaciers, and sea level rise, are also escalating costs, causing loss of homes and livelihoods, and driving forced displacement worldwide.

By 2030, the number of critical buildings and facilities at risk of routine flooding along US coastlines is expected to grow by 20% compared to 2020. For example, Charleston, South Carolina, experienced over 20 high-tide floods in 2023, and by 2050, at least 23 essential infrastructure pieces in Charleston, including 17 public housing buildings, are expected to flood at least twice annually under a medium sea level rise scenario, worsening the state’s affordable housing crisis.

The UCS researchers used data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide gauges and three sea level rise scenarios developed by a US Interagency Task Force to identify at-risk critical infrastructure across the contiguous US, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. This infrastructure includes buildings and facilities essential for daily life or those that could cause environmental hazards if flooded. The study’s scope is likely underestimated, as it does not include drinking water facilities, transportation stations, or retirement and care facilities for older adults.

The analysis considers flooding driven solely by sea level rise and tidal heights, excluding other climate-related factors like storm surges and heavy rainfall that also increase flooding risks. The study emphasizes that the extent of sea level rise by the end of the century will depend on global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without urgent measures to reinforce critical infrastructure, the number of at-risk schools, apartment buildings, energy facilities, and government structures could increase sevenfold by 2100.

Currently, nearly 7.5 million people live in 1,758 coastal communities with critical infrastructure at risk of frequent flooding by the century’s end. In a medium-case scenario, around 4,800 buildings and facilities along US coastlines could face disruptive flooding every two weeks by 2100. Erika Spanger, a co-author and director of strategic climate analytics at UCS, warns that even if homes remain dry, flooding of vital infrastructure could leave people stranded or in intolerable conditions, necessitating urgent attention for many coastal communities.

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