Climate Central’s John Upton Shares His Research on How Rising Sea Levels are Impacting Economically Challenged Eastern US Cities

Adam West • July 11, 2017

In a Nutshell: While East Coast cities are being impacted by rising sea levels and are susceptible to flooding, what’s more alarming is the lack of government intervention in lower-income, at-risk areas in contrast with their wealthier counterparts. John Upton, Senior Science Writer at Climate Central, reports that low-income neighborhoods typically don’t have as much influence in Washington, D.C. or other state capitals when compared with more affluent areas, which could have something to do with the lack of resources provided. There’s also the cost ratio in terms of the median price of homes in lower-income areas versus the government-allotted resources for aid. Lower-priced homes simply don’t stack up in value to more expensive properties, and thus, the majority of financial aid goes to wealthier areas of the community.

Made up of leading scientists and journalists, Climate Central is an independent organization that conducts research on climate change. These experts report on a number of geological factors that cause rising sea levels, sinking coastlines, and, as a result, the flooding of homes.

The group has analyzed hundreds of coastal cities in the US and projects rapid escalation of homes being flooded in 90 of the cities they looked at. To determine these probabilities, Climate Central’s science team uses advanced mapping skills, followed by the use of graphical maps to determine — based on water volume — how many roads will flood, and what percentage of houses will then flood as a result.

“It’s basically a combination of using sea level rise projections and a fairly detailed topographical map of American coastal cities,” said John Upton, Senior Science Writer at Climate Central.

One of the most heated issues surrounding flood threats is that the federal government largely ignores lower-income communities facing risk. Eastern states like New Jersey and Virginia are in the most danger, and homeowners in economically challenged neighborhoods in these regions deal with the stark reality that they could lose their homes because nothing is being done to protect them.

“When governments decide to spend money to reduce flooding impact, they take into consideration the value of the property to be protected,” John said. “So if you’re in a low-income community, your property is probably fairly low value.”

Measures can be taken to protect people in poorer regions from losing their homes, but it requires action and a shift in policy. Unfortunately, even five years after Hurricane Sandy, policy change in this area still seems to be a relatively low priority. If no change is put into effect soon, however, many poor and working class East Coasters could lose their property and be forced to migrate inland.

Eastern US Cities Face a Risk of Rapid Escalation in Flooding

While US cities on both the East and West Coasts face the risk of an escalation in flooding, the Eastern seaboard is most vulnerable to these threats. This is partially due to lower average elevation levels, but there’s a lot more to it than that, including the actual sinking of the land.

“There are pretty substantial subsidence issues, so the land is actually getting lower here,” John said. “And that’s going to continue, so there’s nothing we can really do about that. We can slow it down a bit if we stop pumping out so much ground water, but a large part of the problem is simply natural geology — that part of the country is just sinking.”

In addition, there are changes that play out over time that have to do with wind patterns over the water coupled with a rise in sea level. A small rise in sea level will have a bigger impact on the East Coast versus the West Coast because of the gradual incline from the land on this side of the country, all the way down to the ocean floor.

“The really important thing is that the geology and the topography are very different on the East Coast and on the West Coast,” John said. “On the West Coast, they’re at the edge of a sort of rim of fire, so they have a lot of steep cliffs. Whereas on the East Coast, you have this very gradual incline from the land down through the ocean to the ocean floor. That means that on the East Coast, a small amount of sea level rise has a bigger impact on a city that’s built on a slope.”

Why the Government Chooses to Spend More on Protecting Homes in Affluent Areas

While federal dollars to prevent flooding are more often diverted to more affluent neighborhoods, another issue remains a thorn in the side of East Coast natives. Many politicians just don’t take climate change seriously.

“Governor Chris Christie has taken a number of steps to slow down action on climate change,” John said. “He doesn’t actually take climate change too seriously. The government puts the responsibilities of these issues on the cities. They don’t consider it to be a state responsibility. The problem there is that a lot of cities don’t have the money to really tackle flooding on a substantial scale.”

Once flood threats become real, lower-income communities suffer the most because of the lack of resources. Thus, the problem is compounded in these regions because they receive minimal, if any, aid from the federal government.

“They don’t have as many people fighting for them,” John said. “They tend to go without funding for that reason. But there’s a second reason, and that’s when the government does cost-benefit ratio analyses, where it figures out where to spend money, it advantages the high property value areas. These show up in their books as being more deserving of their spending because these expensive properties are more worthy of protecting.”

Ways Elected Officials Can Respond to Flood Threats if They Choose to Help Struggling Communities

Science tells us that sea levels are rising as oceans heat up, and glaciers and ice sheets melt. There’s no way around this, and homeowners on the Atlantic coastline are going to feel the threats more than anyone.

“The governments won’t be able to protect all communities from all floods,” John said. “There’s going to need to be some prioritization.”

Policymakers and elected officials have the power to help by taking steps like ordering flood barriers, renovating homes, and implementing better flood warning systems. However, only time will tell if they heed the evidence and choose to do so.

“They can continue on the path that they’re currently on, and continue to protect wealthy residents, or they can take the more egalitarian view of how we’re going to respond to these threats and do a little bit more to help some of the communities that are struggling with these floods and with their finances,” John said.

How the Government Adapts to Rising Sea Levels Will Impact the Future of Low-Income Coastal Areas

Climate change has been a topic of debate for years now, but many policymakers don’t consider it to be a serious problem. Research from leading scientists at organizations like Climate Central, however, is presenting evidence of rising sea levels. The data suggests climate change is real, and many low-income coastal regions are in grave danger of being wiped out.

“I think it’s easy to think of sea level rise as a distant threat, but it’s actually happening right here, right now, and it’s affecting a lot of people,” John said. “But I think that a lot of the news on that is getting lost because I think there’s a lot going on in the world right now, and also because the impacts are being felt by those who are poor and vulnerable.”

The big question is whether the government will step in and do something about these low-income, flood-risk communities. If policymakers can come up with a plan of action to protect these regions, then some of these communities might stand a fighting chance. If nothing is done, however, a mass migration inland is likely imminent.

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About the Author

Adam West

Adam is a Contributing Editor at Digital Brands, Inc., where he writes and edits articles for CardRates.com and BadCredit.org, among other websites. He has more than a dozen years of storytelling, copy editing, and design experience in print and online journalism for publications, such as The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner. Adam now works closely with finance experts and industry leaders to ensure readers are always in the know.