The hope is that in 80 years we’re not all wet.
Community leaders and some of the state’s top experts in sea-level rise gathered Tuesday morning at College of Coastal Georgia to take a good look at where we’re at with sea-level rise in Glynn County, what’s to come and how we, as a community, can adapt and move forward.
“Looking to the future, (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) predicts between 1.4 to 10.5 feet of sea-level rise in Glynn County by 2100,” said Jill Gambill, public service faculty and coastal resilience specialist for the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “As you all know, this is a huge range to plan for, so let me unpack those numbers a little bit. As scientific modeling improves and more is known about the Earth’s changing climate, agencies like NOAA can better predict the localized impacts of sea-level rise.”
Gambill said scientists are now able to take global sea-level rise predictions and downscale them into regional estimates, using a number of factors, including sedimentation and ocean circulation patterns. Indeed a 2017 study by University of Florida professors discovered the coast off the southeastern United States experienced an enhanced level of sea-level rise compared to the rest of the world.
Gambill said that from her best information, predictions for Glynn County are for a 28 percent higher sea-level rise by 2100 as compared to the global average.
There’s been a continual increase of sea level at the Georgia coast for as long as there’s been continuous monitoring.
“The tidal range and processes for this area are actually more relevant to the Ft. Pulaski (National Monument) tide gauge,” Gambill said, comparing Ft. Pulaski to the other nearby gauge location, at Fernandina Beach, Fla. “It has measured 10 inches of sea-level rise since 1935, when it was first installed. This has led to sharp increase of flooding along the Georgia coast. This also means when a tropical storm or hurricane threatens Glynn County, storm surge launches from a higher point than in the past.”
She said projections show the number of days involving high-tide flooding in Glynn County by 2100 range from 76 days a year to nearly every day.
“Even under an intermediate scenario of sea-level rise, there could be 363 days of flooding per year of flooding at high tide by 2100, or literally every day of the year,” Gambill said.
Coastal cities are developing plans with which to move forward — Gambill was part of the 2016 Tybee Island plan that was adopted by its city council, and lead author of the 2017 plan adopted by the St. Marys City Council.
“Tybee was also concerned about flooding that was occurring in the southwest corner of the island, however, our analysis revealed the water was not coming up over the lip of the island, but rather flowing backward through the stormwater system,” Gambill said. “Tybee addressed this by installing a tide gate to prevent the backflow of water.”
She noted St. Marys received a grant to help with its urban stormwater retrofitting.
“They are creating a downtown water retention and detention area, they’re installing similar backflow preventers as Tybee, and they were until recently looking at setting up a stormwater utility fund, but I understand Brunswick has now beaten them out on that,” Gambill said.
Savannah and Chatham County, meanwhile, are working on urban tree nurseries, establishing a landscape management workforce development program, looking at green infrastructure on underutilized flood-susceptible lots and ways to mitigate flooding, especially in low-income areas.
“I encourage you not to ignore the cultural and socioeconomic risks that are associated with sea-level rise,” Gambill said. “In April 2018, (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) published an affordability study indicating that Americans with the lowest median income live in the highest flood-hazard areas. Thus, those most burdened with the rising cost of flood insurance may have the least ability to afford it. FEMA is actively investigating how to equitably and sustainably redesign their flood insurance pricing structure.”
Mason Waters, regional president of United Community Bank, discussed the history of flood insurance and what it means for a place like Glynn County. Several years ago, a change in the federal flood insurance laws made the legally mandated insurance, for many people, so expensive that it became untenable to continue paying the mortgage for their home. They couldn’t sell, either, because people didn’t want to buy a property with that problem, so some simply walked away from their properties.
“There was a scramble for the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014,” Waters said. “Have you ever used the joke, ‘It takes an act of Congress to get something done?’ It literally took an act of Congress to get the insurance rates on Riverside Drive back down to something that homeowners could afford. Will we always be able to do that? I don’t know. It’s a pretty delicate balance you’re hinging the value of your property and the value of your business on. But here’s what I do know — if you can’t get insurance, I can’t lend you any money.”
He said that when you dry up the supply of available capital in a community, you dry up growth.
“Back in May of this year, there was a Harvard study that coined a new term called ‘climate gentrification,’” Waters said. “And they’ve done a big study around Miami-Dade County and they can show through empirical evidence that the properties that are in hazard areas are not appreciating, or not appreciating at the rate that other areas are. The high-and-dry properties’ appreciating is accelerating.
“So, it changes the dynamic — the property that’s always been the most valuable to us may not always be the most desirable. Now we are looking for something different. We are chafing the behaviors of the land consumer on the coast. It’s happening right now in Miami, and there’s no reason why it can’t happen here.”
Also speaking at the event — which was organized by the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation and the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce — were Kim Cobb, professor and director of the Global Change Program at Georgia Tech, Russ Clark, director of Mobile Technology and Internet of Things programs at Georgia Tech, Jennifer Kline, coastal hazards specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division, Jimmy Junkin, executive director of the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission and Charles Ezelle, principal and regional director for the engineering firm Thomas and Hutton.
A recording of the roughly two and a half-hour event, along with presentations given, will be available at coastalgeorgiafoundation.org.