Climate: Storm surge damage costs forecast to soar

‘If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic’

Winter storm surge eats away a beach on the west coast of Florida.

Winter storm surge eats away a beach on the west coast of Florida. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Watching damage from individual megastorms like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan is bad enough, but the outlook for coming decades is downright scary.

According to new research, global average storm surge damages could increase from about $10-$40 billion per year today to up to $100,000 billion per year by the end of century without significant adaptation measures.

“If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic,” said Jochen Hinkel, a researcher with the Berlin-based think-tank Global Climate Forum.

By 2100, up to 600 million people (around 5 percent of the global population) could be affected by coastal flooding if no adaptation measures are put in place, Hinkel explained. Asia and Africa may be particularly hard hit because of their rapidly growing coastal mega-cities, such as Shanghai, Manila and Lagos, he said.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, presents a comprehensive global simulation results og future flood damages to buildings and infrastructure in coastal flood plains. Drastic increases in these damages are expected due to both rising sea levels and population and economic growth in the coastal zone.

“Countries need to take action and invest in coastal protection measures, such as building or raising dikes, amongst other options,” Hinkel said. With protective measures, the projected damages could be reduced to below $80 billion per year during the 21st century, he added.

The researchers found that an investment level of $10 to $70 billion per year could achieve such a reduction. Prompt action is needed most in Asia and Africa where, today, large parts of the coastal population are already affected by storm surge flooding.

However, investment must also occur in Europe as shown by the recent coastal floods in South West England.

“If we ignore sea-level rise, flood damages will progressively rise and presently good defenses will be degraded and ultimately overwhelmed,” said Professor Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton, who is a co-author of the paper. “Hence we must start to adapt now, be that planning higher defences, flood proofing buildings and strategically planning coastal land use,” Nicholls said.

Meeting the challenge of adapting to rising sea levels will not be easy, Hinkel added. International finance mechanisms have thus far proved sluggish in mobilizng funds for adapting to climate change, as the debate on adaptation funding at the recent climate conference in Warsaw once again confirmed.

“Poor countries and heavily impacted small-island states are not able to make the necessary investments alone, they need international support,” Hinkel said. “If we do not reduce greenhouse gases swiftly and substantially, some regions will have to seriously consider relocating significant numbers of people in the longer run,” he said.

Yet regardless of how much sea-level rise climate change brings, the researchers say careful long-term strategic planning can ensure that development in high-risk flood zones is appropriately designed or avoided.

“This long-term perspective is however a challenge to bring about, as coastal development tends to be dominated by short-term interests of, for example, real-estate and tourism companies, which prefer to build directly at the waterfront with little thought about the future,” Nicholls concluded.

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