How Coastal Communities Are Already Retreating from Rising Seas


As sea levels rise, hundreds of millions
of people around the world will have to move to higher ground. The reality is
that we can’t hold back the water by surrounding ourselves with walls, and in
some places, the floods are already here. Coastal communities struggling to adapt
to rising seas are beginning to do what was once unthinkable: retreat. But what
does it mean to retreat, to give in to the rising tides, uproot from home and
adapt to the new realities of a changing climate? In New Jersey, one town is
finding out. After Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and flooded her home for the third
time in as many years, Monique Coleman had had enough. She
applied to a program where the government would buy her damaged house,
demolish it and block redevelopment forever. Monique Coleman: But I did start to realize that we were, in a sense, victims of a system in terms of being in a neighborhood that was built in an area that shouldn’t have ever been. I just felt like we were taken advantage of, right, somewhere along the line. As sea level rise accelerates, flooding
will become a regular occurrence. Craig Fugate: And so the question for the Jersey Shore will be
this: All right, that first row of homes, that first row of businesses, those first streets, do we
give that up to get the beach back? Or do we end up where we’re basically sitting on
seawalls and you walk down from the seawalls into the water because there is no beach left? Just how long the Jersey Shore has to prepare for this depends a lot on the
fate of the highly unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet. NASA scientists and
many others are racing to understand how fast the ice is melting. John Sonntag: We don’t collect
this data because we find it interesting. We collect it because we’re trying to
protect our own communities. For coastal communities, retreat will not mean
drawing a line in the sand and moving everyone out of the way. Fawn McGee: If we
took five homes right here, that would make a difference for the people that were further up. We’re basically just trying
to create an area for flood mitigation. Clusters of homes have been permanently
removed in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Instead of building walls, scientists are now
restoring the land to protect residents from rising seas. Jeremiah Bergstrom: This is
infrastructure, just the same as the roads over there, just the same as the
electrical grid, just the same as our water and sewer system. Abandoning some of the shoreline is inevitable. Even with
careful planning, the process will be messy and painful, but with no planning
at all, our retreat from rising seas will be chaotic and devastating. To find out
how just a handful of people in New Jersey are transforming how we live
along the coast, read “Surrendering to Rising Seas” on sciam.com/retreat. For Scientific American, I’m Jen Schwartz.