Norfolk, Va.--Huge vertical rulers are sprouting beside low spots in the streets here, so people can judge if the tidal floods that increasingly inundate their roads are too deep to drive through.
Five hundred miles down the Atlantic Coast, the only road to Tybee Island, Ga., is disappearing beneath the sea several times a year, cutting the town off from the mainland.
And another 500 miles on, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., increased tidal flooding is forcing the city to spend millions fixing battered roads and drains--and, at times, to send out giant vacuum trucks to suck saltwater off the streets.
For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.
Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.
Federal scientists have documented a sharp jump in this nuisance flooding--often called “sunny-day flooding”--along both the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in recent years. The sea is now so near the brim in many places that they believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly. Shifts in the Pacific Ocean mean that the West Coast, partly spared over the past two decades, may be hit hard, too.
These tidal floods are often just a foot or two deep, but they can stop traffic, swamp basements, damage cars, kill lawns and forests, and poison wells with salt. Moreover, the high seas interfere with the drainage of storm water.
In coastal regions, that compounds the damage from the increasingly heavy rains plaguing the country, like those that recently caused extensive flooding in Louisiana. Scientists say these rains are also a consequence of human greenhouse emissions.
“Once impacts become noticeable, they’re going to be upon you quickly,” said William V. Sweet, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Silver Spring, Md., who is among the leaders in research on coastal inundation. “It’s not a hundred years off--it’s now.”
Local governments, under pressure from annoyed citizens, are beginning to act. Elections are being won on promises to invest money to protect against flooding. Miami Beach is leading the way, increasing local fees to finance a $400 million plan that includes raising streets, installing pumps and elevating sea walls.
In many of the worst-hit cities, mayors of both parties are sounding an alarm.
“I’m a Republican, but I also realize, by any objective analysis, the sea level is rising,” said Jason Buelterman, the mayor of tiny Tybee Island, one of the first Georgia communities to adopt a detailed climate plan.
But the local leaders say they cannot tackle this problem alone. They are pleading with state and federal governments for guidance and help, including billions to pay for flood walls, pumps and road improvements that would buy them time.
Yet Congress has largely ignored these pleas, and has even tried to block plans by the military to head off future problems at the numerous bases imperiled by a rising sea. A Republican congressman from Colorado, Ken Buck, recently called one military proposal part of a “radical climate change agenda.”
The gridlock in Washington means the United States lacks not only a broad national policy on sea-level rise, it has something close to the opposite: The federal government spends billions of taxpayer dollars in ways that add to the risks, by subsidizing local governments and homeowners who build in imperiled locations along the coast.
As the problem worsens, experts are warning that national security is on the line. Naval bases, in particular, are threatened; they can hardly be moved away from the ocean, yet much of their land is at risk of disappearing within this century.
“It’s as if the country was being attacked along every border, simultaneously,” said Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Florida and one of the world’s leading experts on rising seas. “It’s a slow, gradual attack, but it threatens the safety and security of the United States.”
One night eight years ago, Karen Speights, a Norfolk resident, was sitting at the dinner table with her mother, eating crab legs dipped in butter and a tangy sauce. She felt a tingle.
“Ma!” she cried. “My feet are wet!”
Her mother laughed, but then she felt it, too: a house that had not flooded since the family moved there in 1964 was soon awash in saltwater. Ms. Speights initially hoped that flood was a fluke. Instead, it turned out to be the first of three to hit their home in less than a decade.
Nowadays, Ms. Speights, an administrative worker at a utility company, is wondering how to get her and her mother out of the neighborhood before the water comes again, without taking too much of a financial hit. And she pays more attention to problems that once seemed remote, like warnings from scientists about the rising sea.
“I believe it because we’re living it,” Ms. Speights said as she sat on her sofa, nodding toward the nearby tidal marsh that sent water into her living room. “The water has to be rising if we never flooded, and all of a sudden we’ve flooded three times in eight years.”
Because the land is sinking as the ocean rises, Norfolk and the metropolitan region surrounding it, known as Hampton Roads, are among the worst-hit parts of the United States. That local factor means, in essence, that the region is a few decades ahead in feeling the effects of sea-level rise, and illustrates what people along the rest of the American coast can expect.
The release of greenhouse gases from human activity is causing the planet to warm rapidly, perhaps faster than at any other time in the Earth’s history. The ice sheets in both Greenland and West Antarctica are beginning to melt into the sea at an accelerating pace.
Scientists had long hoped that any disintegration of the ice sheets would take thousands of years, but recent research suggests the breakup of West Antarctica could occur much faster. In the worst-case scenario, this research suggests, the rate of sea-level rise could reach a foot per decade by the 22nd century, about 10 times faster than today.
In 2013, scientists reached a consensus that three feet was the highest plausible rise by the year 2100. But now some of them are starting to say that six or seven feet may be possible. A rise that large over a span of decades would be an unparalleled national catastrophe, driving millions of people from their homes and most likely requiring the abandonment of entire cities.