Don’t panic, but the Atlantic Ocean is slowly creeping forward.
The sea rising due to climate change is the consensus of government officials and long-time observers in Brunswick and the Golden Isles.
“Climate change is real,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, pledging to do what he can to better prepare Georgia’s coastline for Atlantic storms.
The Pooler Republican is in a good position in Congress to play a role in strengthening coastal defenses in his district, which includes Georgia counties bounded by the ocean. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Environment Subcommittee and the House Select Committee on Climate Change, both of which are tasked with addressing rising sea level and climate change.
“Through a mix of partnerships, including NOAA, UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, Georgia Tech with its Sea Level Sensors project, and the individual communities along the coast, like Tybee Island and Brunswick, we are aware of existing challenges to Georgia’s coast and are working to address future concerns,” Carter said. “For example, through Georgia Tech’s Sea Level Sensors project, we know that flooding frequency and intensity has risen in the Savannah-Chatham County Area. Their network of 50 sensors not only provide real-time information of sea level changes but the data will also allow for modeling and forecasting of flooding in areas where people live.”
No one has to explain problems associated with climate change and sea level rise to city of Brunswick officials. They’ve witnessed it often enough.
“We constantly have that on our mind all the time,” said Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey. “On the coast, we’re prone to flooding. Think about the deluge we had not long ago (in mid-September).”
The heavy rainstorm Harvey refers to dropped close to 10 inches of rain on downtown Brunswick during a very high tide, causing what may have been record flooding in the area.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sea level along the southern East Coast has risen by about a foot in the last century. That might seem small, but much of it has been in the past three decades, with the rate increasing significantly in just the last 10 years.
But rain in Brunswick is not unusual, and neither are high tides. Flooding is a fact of life on the coast. High tides block the drainage system and keep rainwater from retreating into the marshes. Roads and neighborhoods become temporary retention ponds for standing, excess water.
Harvey did not shy away from the fact the city’s drainage system has been neglected, but even when stormwater drainage is completely sorted out, flooding will remain an issue.
Sea-level rise is exacerbating the problem, asserts city Public Works Director Garrow Alberson. And it will likely get worse without mitigation efforts.
Brunswick isn’t the only community with a wary eye on the sea.
On Jekyll Island, the ocean washes over some bike paths regularly where it did not before, when the paths were first constructed, said Ben Carswell, Jekyll Island Authority’s conservation director.
“In the more natural realm, there’s areas where the forest meets the marsh where we’re seeing very small but noticeable areas of what people call ghost forest,” Carswell said.
Ocean encroachment on the coastal woodlands is transforming the land into wetlands unsuitable to the trees that have stood there for generations, he said.
Like Brunswick, the unincorporated areas of Glynn County are dealing with drainage and infrastructure issues that could be connected to a rising sea.
“We have tide gates to keep the tide from rolling back in, we have concerns about the bike paths (on St. Simons Island), and anytime we have a high tide and extreme rains it hampers the ability of stuff to drain because we’re on flat ground,” said Glynn County Public Works Director Dave Austin.
Up and down the coast, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with NOAA, monitors the sea level and provides local governments with the latest research.
“What we see is just that it’s slowly creeping up on us, so it’s definitely just a portion (of sea-level rise) that we see,” said Jennifer Kline, coastal hazards and resilience specialist with the DNR. “Here, we’re starting to see the impacts of it on our infrastructure and we’re expecting to see more of those high-tide events. We’ll see more of that high tide, saltwater flooding over roads, like at the entrance to Glynn Middle or surrounding lift stations for water and sewer.”
Erosion will be a greater problem too. It will worsen unless action is taken to mitigate the effects of sea level rise, Kline said.
In St. Marys, there is no question in the minds of elected officials about the threat of sea level rise.
The city collaborated with Georgia Sea Grant, the University of Georgia, Stetson University in Florida and North Carolina Sea Grant to begin flood resiliency planning.
The study showed St. Marys has already seen nearly nine inches of sea level rise since 1897, and the trend is expected to continue to accelerate in the future, said Alex Kearns, chair of St. Marys EarthKeepers.
In recent years, hurricanes have flooded businesses on the waterfront with water shin deep or deeper.
“We’re seeing beaches eroding, dunes being washed away, coast property either being destroyed completely or losing all value as it loses ground,” Kearns said. “These natural barriers serve to mitigate the force of storms and storm surge. Without the beaches, salt marshes and dunes, we’re more vulnerable than ever.”
Jason Evans, interim executive director of the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience and an associate professor of environmental science and studies at Stetson University in Florida, was part of a group that examined sea level rise in St. Marys during a 4-year study that ended in 2018.
“The biggest impacts from sea level rise in St. Marys are twofold,” Evans said. “First, much of the city’s stormwater system was built many decades ago and is increasingly being impacted by sea water during high tides. This causes poor drainage and more localized flooding during rainfall events.”
Another problem is storm surges from tropical storms and hurricanes, which are amplified by higher sea levels. The storm surges from hurricanes Matthew and Irma, which created flooding problems in St. Marys, were five to six inches higher than what the area would have experienced 50 years ago, Evans said.
And it’s got the potential to get worse.
Evans said a worst-case scenario could bring anywhere from six to eight feet of sea level rise this year.
“In such a scenario, much of the U.S. coastline – including St. Marys – would face the risk of catastrophic flooding within 50-60 years,” Evans said. “Residents would therefore be faced with many billions of dollars of investment in coastal defenses, or the prospect of having to abandon many low-lying coastal areas.
“My advice to anyone thinking about a worst-case scenario of sea level rise is that it’s probably a lot more productive to work toward ways in which we can best avoid such a scenario from becoming reality.”
Kearns said the coast can expect increasing saltwater incursion into fresh water sources, stressed federal relief funds due to more and stronger water-related disasters, rising flood insurance costs and aging infrastructure and climate-related events.
Up the coast, Alan Robertson, Tybee Island’s project manager for coastal resilience, said proof of sea level rise can be found at Fort Pulaski National Monument. Scientists have meticulously gauged the seas from the Civil War-era fort through two centuries, going back at least to 1935.
Built in 1847, Fort Pulaski is located on Cockspur Island between the Savannah River and its south channel, just across the water from Tybee Island.
NOAA’s tidal gauge there shows sea levels rising an average of 3.33 millimeters annually during the past 85 years. That comes to a little more than 1 foot in sea level rise on Georgia’s coast every 100 years.
A 2015 National Geographic article on sea level rise indicated a loss of between 500 and 2,000 feet of shoreline for a 1-foot rise in sea level.
“When you’re this close to a tidal gauge that’s been operating that long and it shows that result, I don’t know how you can argue with it,” Robertson said. “The sea has risen.”
Flooding has long been a problem on the island’s only access road, U.S. 80. This is especially true during king tides, when waters rise due to gravitational forces caused by certain alignments and phases of the moon. But the frequency and intensity of flooding on that causeway has increased disproportionately in this century, he said.
“There’s a higher frequency of flooding during the king tides now,” Robertson said. “And nothing else has changed. That means the water is rising.”
Resident spurs study
A few years ago, Frances Zwenig typed in the zip code numbers for Glynn County and then for Brunswick into the search bar of a rising sea level report completed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The results stunned her.
“It said that by 2035, which is even closer now than it was then, a third of downtown Brunswick could be under water every year,” said Zwenig, who has lived permanently on St. Simons since 2012 but a frequent visitor since the mid-1980s.”
Zwenig could not just sit on this shocking information and began asking questions about what local leaders were doing to prepare for the coming reality.
She got in touch with Paul White, president and CEO of the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation, and the two began collaborating on how to have a community conversation on the issue.
Zwenig knew local voices from Georgia and the Golden Isles would be important for the discussion so she contacted scientists with the University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology researching rising sea levels in the state.
One of the individuals she contacted was Kim Cobb at Georgia Tech.
Cobb and others have partnered with Chatham County to conduct a project to measure rising sea levels that they hope will eventually span Georgia’s 100 miles of coast.
“Their dream, their aim, their vision was to expand it through the whole hundred miles of the Georgia coast,” Zwenig said. “So my calling and asking about how we could fit in, how Glynn County could fit in, to what they were doing — it was just a series of fortuitous happenstances.”
Zwenig worked with White to organize in January 2019 an event titled “Rising Sea Level Predictions: What They Might Mean for Glynn County,” which was hosted at College of Coastal Georgia and drew a packed audience. The event’s panel featured community leaders and some of the state’s top experts on sea level rise.
“I was hoping to raise people’s awareness, see what was being done, see what was possible and then hopefully inspire our government representatives to do something,” Zwenig said.
Rising sea levels is a concern that many say will have to be addressed at the local level. It’s essential to flood resilience planning in coastal communities, according to a recent report funded by NOAA and titled “Enhancing Coastal Resilience with Green Infrastructure.”
Sea levels across the globe have risen faster since 1900 than during any comparable period over the last 2,800 years, according to the report.
The coastal resilience report is meant to be used as a resource by community leaders. It was created by DNR’s Coastal Resources Division with support from numerous college and university researchers, coastal community government employees and others.
The rate of sea level rise is continuing at about one-eighth of an inch annually, according to the guide.
“Much of this sea level rise is a result of climate change and rising average global temperatures,” the report states. “Thus, global mean sea level (GMSL) will continue to rise throughout the 21st century and beyond. Questions remain regarding how much it will rise and when it will happen. Much of that uncertainty relates to global trends in greenhouse gas emissions, but there is very little doubt that this is happening.”
To improve community resilience, the report urges local planners to reduce flooding and storm surge hazards by incorporating sea level rise projections into their decisions.
Rising sea level effects are first seen in increasing incidents of high tide flooding, according to the report.
“However, other areas will also be subject to regular flooding during...king tides,” the report states. “This is particularly true in areas with large tidal ranges, such as in Georgia where tides can regularly reach 3 feet or more above the average high tide line.”
High tide flooding events have about a 20 percent chance of occurring annually, but because of rising levels, NOAA estimates that most coastal communities will see a 25-fold increase in their frequency.
“Put another way, instead of a flooding event that will occur on average once every five years, high tide flooding becomes an event that will occur five times per year, or every two to three months,” the report states.
Local decision-makers tasked with planning for both long- and short-term land use and infrastructure investment need to look beyond historical flood information and take future conditions into account, the report advises.
“For some decisions, planners need to consider the worst-case scenario to protect critical facilities from potential impacts,” the report states. “For other decisions, it is more important to focus on what is likely to happen.”
Soon after the rising sea level forum, Zwenig coordinated a meeting between the Georgia Tech scientists and local leaders, including city and county officials, to discuss getting Glynn County involved in the research project to monitor rising sea levels on Georgia’s coast.
Cobb and her research partner Russell Clark offered an overview of their project and explained how the research could be adapted to local sites.
“And of course (Cobb and Russell) were happy to work with us because their vision is to measure the whole coast,” Zwenig said.
A budget was prepared by Zwenig, Cobb and Russell. Zwenig said she even offered to help raise money to support the effort.
“And no one bit,” she said.
A lack of imagination and leadership may explain why local government leaders declined to participate in the research effort, she said.
“I think it’s a combination of factors, and it’s the same reason why people don’t deal with rising sea levels overall,” Zwenig said. “It’s an enormous problem, and people think, ‘What can I do? What can I as an individual do? And maybe the city and county officials think that as well. It’s just too big.”
City and county revenues are heavily dependent on property taxes, Zwenig noted, so raising questions that could affect property values may not be in their immediate interest. But the long-term implications of such a decision are dangerous.
Zwenig can already see impacts of rising sea levels where she lives. Her home sits on marsh-front property on St. Simons, and she said king tides completely cover the marsh facing her. And like many in the county, she saw first-hand the kind of flooding in the Isles that infiltrates homes and damages property during recent hurricanes Matthew and Irma.
It happened before in 2005 with Tropical Storm Tammy. Residents whose homes did not ordinarily flood during storms, including many in inland areas, reported thousands of dollars in water damage.
Eventually, Zwenig predicted, there will be a point of no return and the rising sea levels will make property in the area unworthy of investment.
“If someone were to ask me would investing in real estate on St. Simons be good for my children and grandchildren, I would say no,” Zwenig said.
Despite warnings, heavy flooding and storm frequency, some in leadership remain unconvinced there is a problem.
Count among the disbelievers Mike Browning, who served eight years on the Glynn County Commission, two as its chairman, before leaving office at the end of 2020.
“Lived here for 70 years, and I can’t see that the water is coming any higher at my house,” said Browning. who lives near a river. “The old saying, that ‘Seeing is believing,’ when I compare what I hear and see with what I see in the media, I just don’t see it here.”
On the oceanfront, normal tides don’t seem to be much higher either, he said. Spring tides are a fact of life, Browning continued, and hurricanes and nor’easters can cause much higher tides even if they don’t strike the Isles directly. He’s completely for building up and reinforcing the shoreline for those reasons alone.
But many of the methods to protect against major storms and spring tides — living coastlines, dunes, bulkheads and rock revetments, to name a few — could also serve to protect the shore from rising sea levels, Browning said.