Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New Sea Level Visualization Tool Launched by Climate Central

On March 14, 2012, Climate Central, a climate science and climate communications-oriented NGO based in Palo Alto, CA, and Princeton, NJ, launched a new report with an on-line interactive tool for analyzing the risk from US coastal sea level rise-- Surging Seas. Its map is searchable by US postal code or city name.

Read the press release about the launch of the report and on-line tool.

Here's Climate Central's compendium of news coverage about the Surging Seas on-line tool.

And here's the scientific report published on March 14 whose methods form the basis for the Surging Seas map outputs: Tidally adjusted estimates of topographic vulnerability to sea level rise and flooding for the contiguous United States (Strauss, Ziemlinski, Weiss and Overpeck, in Environmental Research Letters).

The first thing I notice is that Alaska and Hawaii aren't included in this map. When I searched "Alaska" it said "No affected location found." Looking back at the title of the methodological basis... "contiguous United States." Aha. (I hope someone is creating a tool like this for those states' extremely vulnerable coasts!)

Searching my hometown of Oakland, CA, it tells me: "Over 1 in 6 chance sea level rise + storm surge + tide will overtop +1ft by 2020 at nearest flood risk indicator site: San Francisco - San Francisco Bay, 13.4 miles away." 

I like that it spells out in a sentence the meaning of what you see in the map that is generated. However, with any tool like this I have to wonder if someone is going to misuse it in an actuarial capacity, or use it to refuse financing to someone looking for a mortgage. The 1 in 6 risk (that's 16% -- we're not told how much over that percent, just that it's over that percent) is for a location 13 miles away; will the sea rise and overtopping happen exactly the same way all the way around the San Francisco bay? If not, that 16% might be only a VERY rough estimate. As with any simplified tool like this, we can't see the error bars or caveats. 

Curious, I looked at their disclaimer. It includes this:
You are cautioned that Content should NOT be used:
  • to assess actual coastal or other hazards, insurance requirements, or property values.
  • in lieu of Flood Insurance Studies and Flood Insurance Rate Maps issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • for navigation, permitting, zoning or other legal purposes.
I hope people heed those words! In the meantime, it's a very accessible tool to provoke thinking (and hopefully motivate policy action) to protect our coasts' future under climate change.

And also... perhaps is has already provoked a little tongue-in-cheek future history of San Francisco after catastrophic sea level rise... From "San Francisco Archipelago" on the blog Burrito Justice, March 20, 2012: "While the submerged ruins of the Sunset and the Mission have always been popular diving attractions, many have already forgotten the locations of long-flooded streets and avenues."

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