As sea level rise accelerates, buying shorefront property becomes a game of musical chairs

Sea level rise graphThank God for climate change deniers. They may eventually be the only buyers for shorefront real estate.

Sea level rise may not cause widespread flooding until later in this century or into the next one, but real estate deals involve long timelines: the useful life of a new house or a commercial building can be at least fifty years, while an infrastructure project might last a hundred years or more.

And of course, it’s one thing to lose your house, and another to lose the ground beneath it. Sea level rise means low-lying real estate now comes with an expiration date.

So smart buyers—and landowners—have to consider not just today’s flood maps, but also ones that haven’t been drawn yet. If a rising sea will threaten property some decades from now, it will depreciate over time, like a car. At some point only chumps and climate deniers will buy.

Head-in-the-sand posturing still dominates the headlines, like Florida Governor Rick Scott’s alleged ban on the use of the term “climate change,” or the North Carolina legislature’s silly (and costly) attempt to legislate sea level rise out of existence. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hopes to force states to get serious about climate change by requiring states to do a better job planning for natural disasters caused in part by global warming. FEMA’s goal is to save money through better planning, but conservatives have attacked the requirement as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, however, many states and localities have already begun using sea level rise forecasting in their planning. The projections will help land use planners determine not just where to allow growth, but also where to defend existing development against the incursion of the sea, and where the wiser course is to retreat. And of course, the studies should inform the decisions of anyone thinking of buying property on the coast.

Two recent studies provide a picture of sea level rise in Virginia. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) issued its report in January 2013, titled Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. Building on that study and others, on March 10 of this year the Sierra Club released Sea Level Rise: What Should Virginia Plan For?

Both studies agree on some pretty sobering numbers. By the end of this century, the sea level in Norfolk, Virginia, is projected to be 3.6-5 feet above the level in 1992. By that point, the sea will be rising more than half a foot per decade. The numbers are higher for Virginia than for many states, in part because the land around Hampton Roads is also sinking at a rate of about one foot per century.

Although Hampton Roads gets most of the media attention, sea level rise threatens the entire Virginia coastline and the tidal portions of rivers, including the Potomac River all the way up to Alexandria and Washington, D.C. A whole lot of people should be consulting topographic maps before they make their next real estate decision.

The Sierra Club report focuses in on specific timeframes that matter in real estate decisions: twenty-five years for short-term projects, fifty years for new homes, and a hundred years for infrastructure projects. With a one-foot margin of safety added in, the report recommends that anyone considering a new project or building today with a 50-year expected life should plan for as much as 3.7 feet of sea level rise over the 1992 baseline. That number becomes 5.5-7.2 feet when the planning horizon is extended out a hundred years, to 2115.

(The “good” news is that the sea rose half a foot between 1992 and today, so you get to subtract six inches from these projections if you are starting now.)

Results are stated as a range rather than a precise number because the actual level will depend on many factors. Researchers agree that a certain amount of sea level rise is “baked in” as a result of greenhouse gas emissions to date, but future emissions will play a big role in determining how much the seas rise in the long run. Providing a range allows users to decide how much risk they are willing to take. Even at the high end, there are caveats; new information about melting ice in Eastern Antarctica could make today’s projections too conservative.

Right now many shore communities are hosting a game of musical chairs. Developers continue to build and sell new housing, figuring they can earn a good return on their investment and get out before the market collapses. Buyers aren’t told about the risks. Sea level rise is bad for business, so business would rather not talk about it. And some local governments soft-peddle the news, afraid of setting off a panic that will make the collapse of the real estate market a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Virginia General Assembly took action this year to require localities in the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to include measures addressing sea level rise in their comprehensive plans. The District includes 16 local governments in southeast Virginia, but that’s only a fraction of the counties and cities vulnerable to sea level rise.

Another bill requires that the disclaimer form provided to home buyers across the state include language warning that the seller makes no representations about whether the property is located in a “special flood hazard area” or may require flood insurance, putting the onus on buyers to inquire. While prudent buyers will follow through (and mortgage lenders will make sure they do), today’s flood maps don’t reflect tomorrow’s reality.

So these bills are a good start, but Virginia needs to do more. Local governments outside of Hampton Roads need specific guidance for planning, and the public needs better education about the floods to come. By the time the sea claims low-lying neighborhoods from Virginia Beach up to Alexandria, there may not be enough climate deniers left to buy everyone out.

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