Retreating from the coastline as sea level rises is one of the most sensitive topics. Homeowners, business leaders, bankers, and elected officials all want to put off the day of reckoning as long as possible. However the ocean cares not about our preferences. As the ice on Greenland and Antarctica continues to melt, the sea will continue to rise, pushing coastal communities to higher ground. Retreat will come in many forms. It’s easy to miss the big picture given the diversity and impact of the different manifestations.
The message is getting harder to miss however. Each week I do a digest of articles from around the world in the news related to rising seas. This week all six articles are about the growing awareness of worsening floods, erosion and retreat. In addition to Florida and California this week includes local stories from Massachusetts, Indonesia, and Taiwan. A new scholarly article “Adapting to shoreline retreat: Finding a path forward” in the journal Shore & Beach, focuses on California and the eroding bluffs, puts it in context with the accelerating rate of rising seas. The article does not yield an easy path forward because there isn’t any.
Retreat will come in many varieties…with streets that flood more and more often, following the pattern of extreme high tides, now known in Florida as “Sunny day flooding” that occurs even on beautiful days. Though the flooding is temporary, people are noticing it just keeps getting worse, following the patterns of the tides. It’s starting to sink in that the reason the extreme high tides keep getting higher is that sea level keeps getting higher. On the California coast where property often seems to be safe, high above the water on a bluff, the normal process of erosion is being accelerated by rising sea level. Each case is different…eroding cliffs, saltwater intrusion in the water table, marshlands and bogs on the Atlantic that keep expanding. “Ghost forests” of dead trees.
Looking at sunny Florida and California, it seems incomprehensible that the cause is the melting of the mile-high ice on Greenland and Antarctica. Yet, that’s what is happening, whether we like it or not. An old English proverb says, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Six centuries ago, when poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that, it was just time and tides. He would have not had any awareness that the sea itself would soon start rising, to the point where it would change coastlines. Inexorable sea level rise will advance time and tide. The rising sea will ignore our desire to remain steadfast. Retreat we will. Our choice is whether to do it with planned adaptation and retreat, or to await catastrophe.