NOAA: Warming-Driven Sea Level Rise To Make Sandy-Type Storm Surges The Norm On East Coast

Flooding from Superstorm Sandy: CREDIT: AP/Charles Sykes
Flooding from Superstorm Sandy: CREDIT: AP/Charles Sykes

A new study by NOAA researchers finds future Hurricane Sandy level inundation will become commonplace in the future under business-as-usual sea level rise projections.

NOAA’s news release for the report “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective” summarizes the key finding:

The record-setting impacts of Sandy were largely attributable to the massive storm surge and resulting inundation from the onshore-directed storm path coincident with high tide. However, climate-change related increases in sea level have nearly doubled today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood recurrence as compared to 1950. Ongoing natural and human-induced forcing of sea level ensures that Sandy-level inundation events will occur more frequently in the future from storms with less intensity and lower storm surge than Sandy.

So we have nearly doubled the chances for a Sandy-type storm surge with just the modest several-inch sea level rise we have caused to date with carbon pollution. We face sea level rise (SLR) of 3 to 6 feet over the next century, with the higher end of the range more likely if we keep taking no serious action to slash CO2 levels.


Significantly, while the path and size of Sandy were driven by a combination of factors — some of which have been linked to climate change — future Sandy-level storm surges will result from weaker storms than Sandy as sea levels rise. That is, even if we never see another storm exactly like Sandy, Sandy-like storm surges will still become more and more common.

Consider the study’s “intermediate high scenario” of 2 to 4 feet of SLR by 2100. The NOAA researchers find Sandy-level storm surge events recurring about once a year (or more frequently) over the vast majority of the coast from Connecticut to southern New Jersey.

In the “High scenario,” sea level rises 4 to 7 feet by 2100 (which some studies suggest is what we’ll see in the no-action case). In that case, even areas that had the very worst storm surges from Sandy — like Sandy Hook and The Battery — will be inundated by such storm surges every 1 or 2 years.

In the “High Scenario,” the Jersey shore from Atlantic City to Cape May sees Sandy level storm surges every year by 2050. That is pretty stunning when you look at the top picture of what Sandy did to Atlantic City. It’s worth noting that, as a 2012 study we reported on found, “the 600-mile stretch of coastline from North Carolina to Massachusetts is experiencing [SLR] rates that are nearly three to four times higher than the global average, a trend that may continue during the coming decades.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may dismiss the issue of global warming’s role in the devastation caused by hurricane Sandy. But the best science says that global warming has already significantly boosted the chance of Sandy-level storm surges and will ultimately make such surges commonplace if we don’t act. Continued denial of climate change will guarantee that we don’t act to slash emissions, that we see sea level rise on the high-end, and that we don’t adequately prepare for the inundations to come.