Rising seasSea level rise requires new forms of decision making

Published 7 March 2018

U.S, cities facing sea level rise need to look beyond traditional strategies for managing issues such as critical erosion and coastal squeeze, according to new research. Civil society initiatives must now play a crucial role in adapting society to climate change, and decision makers must seriously consider the tradeoff among three options: sea wall; beach-nourishment; and relocating coastal infrastructure.

Using the City of Flagler Beach in Florida as a case study, Lund University’s researcher Chad Boda illustrates that the traditional options put forward to address erosion and sea level rise affecting the city’s beach and coastal infrastructure either take a market-driven approach which fails to take into account many environmental and social considerations, or are currently too politically contentious to implement.

Lund notes that the three options that have been considered in Flagler Beach are: constructing a sea wall, beach re-nourishment, or relocation of coastal infrastructure.

The sea wall option, long promoted by the Florida Department of Transportation, would protect vulnerable coastal infrastructure but would damage the local beach environment, which is central to the city’s tourism economy. The sea wall would also affect the nesting habitat of federally protected endangered sea turtles, the study shows.

The beach re-nourishment option, meanwhile, proposed by the federal agency United States Army Corps of Engineers, has the potential to provide incidental environmental benefits, but is primarily concerned with maximizing return on investment. This option was later abandoned after Hurricane Matthew, that struck in October 2016, wrought such extensive damage to the coastal environment that it was deemed no longer economically justified to proceed with the project.

“Both of these options are ultimately based on a cost-benefit analysis, where return on investment takes precedence over environmental concerns such as maintaining the beach and the dunes. The aborted re-nourishment project makes this very clear. The hurricane has basically made it too costly to go ahead, even though re-nourishment would provide for more social and economic benefits than a seawall”, says Boda.

The study instead proposes, that from a scientific, environmental and societal perspective, it is the option of relocating coastal infrastructure that would likely provide the most benefit to the city in the long-run, as it would protect both the beach and vulnerable infrastructure. Relocation has been promoted as the only viable long-term sustainable approach to beach management by coastal scientists; since it would provide for the beach to naturally adapt to sea level rise. Implementing this solution, however, is not likely to be an easy task.