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Climate: Groundwater another factor in coastal flooding

Coastal and island communities must consider groundwater as a potential multiplier when planning for rising sea levels. Image courtesy NASA.

New study sees groundwater as doubling the amount of flooding in some areas

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Some coastal communities may face a double whammy when it comes to climate-related flooding during the next few decades. Along with rising sea levels, there’s also the overlooked threat of inundation from groundwater sources, according to a new research done by scientists with the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, shows that the flooded area in urban Honolulu, Hawaii, including groundwater inundation, is more than twice the area of marine inundation alone — Specifically, a 1-meter rise in sea level would inundate 10 percent of a 1-kilometer wide urbanized area along the shoreline of southern Oahu; 58 percent of the total flooded area would be due to groundwater inundation.

Some models haven’t accounted for groundwater in flooding projections, the researchers said.

“With groundwater tables near the ground surface, excluding groundwater inundation may underestimate the true threat to coastal communities,” said lead author Kolja Rotzoll, a postdoctoral researcher at the UHM Water Resources Research Center.

“This research has implications for communities that are assessing options for adapting to sea level rise. Adapting to marine inundation may require a very different set of options and alternatives than adapting to groundwater inundation,” said Charles Fletcher, UHM Associate Dean and principle investigator on the grant that funded the research.

Groundwater inundation is localized coastal-plain flooding due to a simultaneous rise of the groundwater table with sea level. Groundwater inundation is an additional risk faced by coastal communities and environments before marine flooding occurs because the groundwater table in unconfined aquifers typically moves with the ocean surface and lies above mean sea level at some distance from the shoreline.

Rotzoll and Fletcher combined measurements of the coastal groundwater elevation and tidal influence in urban Honolulu with a high-resolution digital elevation model. With this, they were able to assess vulnerability to groundwater inundation from sea level rise.

“We used the digital elevation model with our improved understanding of groundwater processes to identify areas vulnerable to marine inundation and groundwater inundation,” Rotzoll explained. “It turned out that groundwater inundation poses a significant threat that had not been previously recognized.”

Although effects of sea level rise on coastal areas have been discussed for a long time, this study is the first to explicitly assess the effects of including groundwater dynamics.

“Finding that the inundated areas double when including groundwater inundation in coastal flooding scenarios will certainly be a surprise for everyone assessing the effects of SLR without considering the local groundwater table,” said Rotzoll. “We hope other coastal communities use our research as the basis for conducting their own localized analysis.”

Strong evidence on climate change underscores the need for actions to reduce the impacts of sea level rise. Groundwater inundation has consequences for decision-makers, resource managers, and urban planners and may be applicable to many low-lying coastal areas, especially where the groundwater table is near the ground surface and groundwater withdrawal is not substantial. However, groundwater withdrawals can be used to mitigate effects of a rising water table, even if it means pumping brackish water to avoid inundation.

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