Rapid Escalation of Coastal Flood Exposure in US Municipalities from Sea Level Rise

Rising sea levels are increasing the exposure of populations and infrastructure to coastal flooding. While earlier studies estimate magnitudes of future exposure or project rates of sea level rise, here, we estimate growth rates of exposure, likely to be a key factor in how effectively coastal communities can adapt. These rates may not correlate well with sea level rise rates due to varying patterns of topography and development. We integrate exposure assessments based on LiDAR elevation data with extreme flood event distributions and sea level rise projections to compute the expected annual exposure of population, housing, roads, and property value in 327 medium-to-large coastal municipalities circumscribing the contiguous USA, and identify those localities that could experience rapid exposure growth sometime this century. We define a rate threshold of 0.25% additive increase in expected annual exposure per year, based on its rarity of present-day exceedance. With unchecked carbon emissions under Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5, the number of cities exceeding the threshold reaches 33 (18–59, 90% CI) by 2050 and 90 (22–196) by 2100, including the cities of Boston and Miami. Sharp cuts under RCP 2.6 limit the end-of-century total to 28 (12–105), versus a baseline of 7 cities in 2000. The methods and results presented here offer a new way to illustrate the consequences of different emission scenarios or mitigation efforts, and locally assess the urgency of coastal adaptation measures.

Kulp, S. & Strauss, B.H. Climatic Change (2017) 142: 477. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1963-7