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Climate Change Will Hit New Jersey Hard

The Mid-Atlantic states could see a foot more sea level rise than the global average by 2100.

by Mat McDermott
Dec 6 2013, 4:20pm
Photo via Flickr/US Fish and Wildlife Service

The Mid-Atlantic states may see up to 15 inches more sea level rise than the global average over the next century, new research published in the journal Earth’s Future shows. In a worst-case scenario, sea level could be nearly six feet higher by 2100 than it is today, with at least three to four feet likely.

The research, undertaken by scientists at Rutgers and Tufts universities, forecasts that Atlantic City could be getting once-in-ten-year floods that are more intense than “any flood known there from the observational record” by 2050. That includes the devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. 

Though Sandy caused comparatively little damage to Atlantic City, other towns on the Jersey Shore, northward to New York City and east on Long Island, fared much worse. The unprecedented storm caused total damage of $62 billion, and destroyed over 72,000 buildings in New Jersey alone, with some areas still not fully recovered and some residents still displaced over a year later. 

New Jersey flooding during Hurricane Sandy. Image via Flickr/Wally Gobetz

The report found that sea level rise over the 20th century exposed some 83,000 additional people in New York and New Jersey to flooding. This is a small fraction of what’s coming in the next 80 years.

At the low end of the study's predictions, the New Jersey shore would see 18 inches of sea level rise by 2050, with 42 inches occurring by 2100. At the high end the region could experience 28 inches by the middle of this century and 71 inches by the end of it. The combination of specific regional geography, global warming, and changing ocean dynamics is to blame for both the greater-than-average rising of the seas, and the range of possible outcomes.

“It’s clear from both the tide gauge and geological records that sea level has been rising in the Mid-Atlantic region at a foot per century," explained study co-author Ken Miller. "In the sands of the New Jersey coastal plain, sea level is also rising by another four inches per century because of sediment compaction, due partly to natural forces and partly to groundwater withdrawal—but the rate of sea level rise, global and regionally, is increasing due to melting of ice sheets and the warming of the oceans." 

The effect of rising global temperatures on increasing the rate of sea level rise is well known. Though there is still considerable debate on the speed with which sea levels will rise in the future, low-end predictions are around at least three feet higher by 2100, with much more rise occurring over the coming centuries as global ice caps melt

What is less well known, publicly, is the effect that changes in the Gulf Stream will have on the situation. Depending on how much the Gulf Stream weakens, it could cause an additional foot of sea level rise regionally. It’s in this scenario, with greater changes in ocean dynamics, that New Jersey would experience 5.9 feet of sea level rise in the next 80 years.