levels will occur gradually (though in a blink of an eye in geologic terms). Most insurance contracts are issued for annual
terms, allowing prices, terms, and availability to be constantly
recalibrated to current conditions. While insurers will no doubt
suffer large losses from sudden catastrophes, absent draconian
government intervention it is unlikely insurers will sustain long-term financial harm.
Another consideration is the current or future existence of
government pools. Increased risk of flooding may lead to either
availability or affordability problems for coastal risks. When this
happens, governments often create pools to address a perceived
market failure. The United States already has such a program,
the NFIP, which covers coastal flooding for certain types of
property (predominantly residential).
Because of these mitigating factors, the insurance industry
is unlikely to be the primary funding mechanism for any issues
that might result from rising seas.
Tools to Help Us Understand the Problem
It is impossible in a short article to properly summarize the
numerous tools available to help public policymakers quantify
potential problems and develop adaptation strategies. Two examples are offered here.
The University of Florida has developed the Florida Sea Level
Scenario Sketch Planning Tool to identify transportation infrastructure that may be affected by rising sea levels. 2 The tool combines
Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, a range of estimates of future sea-level rise, detailed databases of transportation
infrastructure (such as roads, rail lines, ports, etc.), and high-res-olution maps of topology to offer a view of what infrastructure is
vulnerable. This tool can help planners prioritize projects to protect
that infrastructure or identify areas that should be avoided in planning future assets. Interested readers are encouraged to look up the
tool to see an example of available technology.
Another interesting tool is described in Modernizing FEMA’s
Flood Hazard Mapping Program: Recommendations for Using
Future-Conditions Hydrology for the National Flood Insurance
Program. 3 The methodology has been available since 2001 and
has been used to a point in developing maps for the NFIP. The
tool helps local communities to see the results of land-use planning on future flood risk. It was part of a FEMA initiative to
increase local community involvement in the development of
flood maps and to help communities see the results of land-use
decisions on future exposure.
The tool was designed to show conditions projected 10 to
20 years into the future given projected development in a watershed. It can help inform decisions on drainage networks, the
effect of buildings and parking lots on runoff patterns, and so
forth. While the tool does not currently contemplate future sea-level rise in coastal areas or natural changes in local hydrology,
it could be adapted to do so.
These examples illustrate that existing technology, if properly applied, can be used to offer detailed local projections of
potential problems from rising seas. This information could
easily be used in adjusting land-use and building codes to contemplate future conditions, as was suggested in “Demographics,
Development, and Disasters.”
Taking Small Steps
Fundamentally, controlling large investments in the future requires that we re-examine what, and where, we are building today.
Every structure erected on low-lying coastal property may require
expensive protection measures during its design lifetime. As with
many other challenges we face, this one involves a trade-off between current cost (or short-term freedom to enjoy beachfront
living) and the long-term price of protection. In many cases, future costs are not being properly considered when decisions are
made to build. It is important that planning commences so that
policymakers have better information to make informed decisions.
As was demonstrated by Katrina and Sandy, damage due to
rising water is not likely to gradually emerge in the form of tiny
annual changes in high tides. Instead, slowly rising seas will
change the probability of inundation from large storms, particularly if the location is unlucky enough to experience a storm at
Four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf
Coast, many parts of New Orleans remained flooded.