Report Outlines Climate Change, Sea Level Rise Consequences

OCEAN CITY — An independent study released this week on climate change and sea level rise in Maryland, including Worcester County and Ocean City, paints a rather ominous picture of the potential for severe coastal flooding in low-lying areas in the near future.

Climate Central, an independent team of climate change and sea level rise scientists, released its report entitled “Maryland and the Surging Sea,” essentially a vulnerability assessment with projections for sea level rise and coastal flood risk. According to the report, the most likely “moderate” sea level rise scenario would put properties and residents within five feet of the high tide line at the greatest risk.

Under the moderate sea level rise scenario, much of the state would be at risk within the next 60 years. In coastal areas along the Lower Shore, that number drops to as low as the next 20 years.

Roughly 265,000 acres in Maryland lie less than five feet above the mean high tide line and much of the land is developed and densely populated. Somerset and Worcester counties, including, of course, Ocean City, have the highest percentages of their homes and assets exposed out of all of the counties in Maryland. According to the study, nearly 50 percent of Worcester’s and Somerset’s assets lie below the mean five-foot high tide line.

Across Maryland, nearly $20 billion in property value lies below the five-foot line including over 40 percent in Worcester County and roughly a third in Ocean City. According to the study, across Maryland, 41,000 homes and 55,000 residents live in areas below the five-foot mean high tide line. Delmarva as a whole includes roughly 183,000 people, 116,000 homes, $42 billion in property value, 3,400 miles of roads and 401 EPA-listed sites including hazardous waste dumps and sewage plants below the five-foot line described in the moderate sea level rise scenario.

“Long before rising seas redraw local maps, they will result in more coastal floods reaching higher,” the report reads. “They are already having this effect. The research in this report underscores the high concentration and wide range of populations, property, infrastructure, buildings and potential contamination sources in low-lying coastal areas.”

The report urges local, state and federal governments to take action now to mitigate future destruction caused by sea level rise and coastal flooding.

“It will not require major storms to cause extensive economic damage and suffering in the future,” the report reads. “Knowledge of the vulnerabilities can lead to better preparation for the next inevitable flood and the ones after. Higher floods in the future are certain, but how much damage they inflict is not and will depend on the measures coastal communities take.”

Meanwhile, Maryland has been somewhat proactive with climate change preparedness with several plans in place to move assets out of flood prone areas where possible in the future. Just this week, ironically on the same day as Climate Central released its rather ominous sea level rise report, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the findings of its own study suggesting the majority of Marylanders are aware of the potential problems and want their state government to take the appropriate action.

According to the DNR report, the survey conducted by George Mason University indicates 73 percent of Marylanders want their state and local governments to take actions to protect their communities against the impacts of climate change. In addition, 55 percent, or more than half of those surveyed, believe protecting coastal areas from sea level rise should be a high or very high priority for the governor and the General Assembly.

“Marylanders clearly understand that extreme temperatures and more severe storms are likely results of climate change that will occur in their communities in the next decade or two,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley. “These survey results confirm that our citizens believe we are on the right track and support our investment in reducing Maryland’s vulnerability to climate change.”

O’Malley pointed specifically to two pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly this year to begin addressing the issue. For example, the Coast Smart Council Bill ensures Maryland follows standards to make safe and fiscally-wise investments when building or upgrading state agency structures located in vulnerable coastal areas. It directs all new and reconstructed state buildings be built to avoid or minimize future flood damage and creates a council to oversee the infrastructure projects.

“Many people in Maryland aren’t sure if sea level rise is happening, or if it is human-caused, which suggests the need for more education about how climate change will affect our families and communities,” said Karen Akerlof, lead investigator on the George Mason study. “Regardless, most citizens support proposed actions to protect the state against sea level rise and other climate change impacts.”