Rising Waters: Solving Increasing Sea Levels

Global warming threatens our precious shoreline. Who will take action?

Aftermath: Dr. Michel Boufadel, left, and a research assistant from NJIT survey the beach at Laurence Harbor after Hurricane Sandy. Boufadel’s team measured the intrusion of saltwater on the inland water table, one way to monitor the effect of sea-level rise.
Photo courtesy of NJIT

Imagine 2 percent of New Jersey under water by the year 2100. That’s the outlook based on the National Climate Assessment published in May by the Obama administration. The assessment, the third of its kind, predicts that global warming may well cause seas worldwide to rise as much as 4 feet by the start of the next century.

This change in sea level would do more than swamp a significant part of New Jersey’s coastline, says Dr. Michel Boufadel, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. “About 7 percent of the land would be directly impacted during major storms,” he says.

We have already seen the impact of hurricane-grade storms like Irene and Sandy, which thrashed hundreds of miles of Jersey coastline. Experts predict stronger and more frequent storms as the climate continues to change. This will mean flooded towns, roads and rails, which will lead to massive recovery costs, displaced residents and workers, and increased prices for everyday items like food and gasoline. Damage to rail lines would push up the cost of mass transit as well.

Boufadel points out that storms and high water can also affect the state’s infrastructure. Erosion, the invasion of saltwater, and settling due to changes in soil resistance all could undermine our bridges—many of which are already weakened by age. Climate change will also affect the state’s flora and fauna.

“Some plants cannot survive when the temperature increases and other type of plants would thrive,” Boufadel says. “A concern is the emergence of tropical diseases and the lack of resistance to them in our region [because they are new here]. For example, with the increase in temperature in New Jersey, northern migration of tropical vectors, such as disease-carrying animals like flies, is expected.”

The potential rise in sea level and storm activity is linked to two major factors, Boufadel says: Thermal expansion of the oceans (water increases in volume when heated) and the melting of the polar ice caps.

The major culprit in this? For Boufadel, it’s the global increase in carbon emissions. He says we must take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint. “We should encourage regulations and ordinances that provide incentives for green buildings, for buildings that use less energy and that use renewable energy, such as solar, wind and hydropower,” he suggests. He adds that we need “good water management.” At NJIT, for example, researchers are developing “methods to better percolate the rain water into the ground to minimize runoff,” he says.

“For New Jersey, I think we need a good story of success at one location,” Boufadel says. “Down the road, I would think that products would be labeled based on their carbon footprint.”

Admittedly, none of this is sexy from a political or media perspective. It is hard to focus the public’s attention on environmental and infrastructure issues until an emergency occurs. However, evidence is mounting—in many cases irrefutably—that New Jersey and the country need to act with a great sense of urgency to halt global warming before we run out of reasonable options. Our elected leaders in Trenton and Washington need to focus on forestalling this impending crisis. So far, their attention has been elsewhere.

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