Coasts

Climate change is affecting social, economic, and environmental systems along U.S. coasts. Ongoing global sea level rise—a result of warming oceans and melting land ice—is increasing the exposure of natural ecosystems and the built environment to high-tide flooding, storm surge, and coastal erosion.

    Key points:

  • America’s coastal properties and infrastructure—and the economies they support—face increasing hazards from ongoing sea level rise.
  • Over time, chronic high tide flooding will result in substantial costs to property owners; if emissions continue increasing, this flooding could transform whole communities.
  • Preparing to respond to more frequent, widespread, and severe coastal flooding can decrease direct losses and cascading economic impacts.
  • Healthy coastal ecosystems support fisheries, tourism, human health, and public safety. Many of these ecosystems are being transformed, degraded, or lost due in part to climate change, particularly sea level rise and higher numbers of extreme weather events.
  • Restoring and conserving coastal ecosystems and adopting natural and nature-based infrastructure solutions can enhance community and ecosystem resilience to climate change.
  • As the pace and extent of coastal flooding and erosion accelerate, the impacts of climate change exacerbate existing social inequities. Many communities face difficult questions about determining who will pay for current impacts and future adaptation and mitigation strategies. Some communities must decide if, how, or when to relocate.

Rising seas, increasing impacts

U.S. coasts are dynamic environments and highly desirable places to live and work. Coasts support jobs in defense, fishing, transportation, and tourism and seaports serve as hubs of commerce that connect the country with its global trading partners. Coasts are also home to diverse ecosystems including beaches, estuaries, and deltas that provide opportunities for recreation, support fisheries, and protect land from coastal storms. 

Flooding in New Orleans

Significant flooding in New Orleans resulted from heavy rains associated with Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the city's flood protection systems.

People and assets in the productive coastal region are routinely exposed to weather and climate-related hazards. Coastal floods occur at many locations each year, caused by events such as high tides, storm surges, strong waves, and heavy precipitation. Impacts from these events can range from mere inconvenience all the way to damaged property, bodily injury, or death. As global sea level rises, higher water levels exacerbate the impacts of these incidents, resulting in deeper floods that last longer and extend further inland. Additionally, as climate changes, some coastal hazards are projected to increase. For instance, coasts may see more severe or more frequent storms and heavier rainfall events.

Although storms, floods, and erosion have always been hazards, they now occur on top of higher sea levels. Combined with coastal development, these hazards now threaten approximately $1 trillion in real estate along U.S. coasts.

Increasing Graph of Global Mean Sea Level and Projected Rise

Observed global mean sea level rise for 1800 to the present, and projected global mean sea level rise for six scenarios from the present to 2100.


Chart showing details of six sea level rise scenarios

Details of NOAA's six global mean sea level rise scenarios. 

Average global sea level has risen by 7 to 8 inches since 1900, with about 3 of those inches occurring since 1993; scientists are highly confident it will continue rising in the future.1 By 2100, global sea level is projected to be between 8 inches and 6.6 feet higher than it was in 1992.1 At regional and smaller scales, relative sea level is also affected by vertical land movement and ocean currents, but any amount of global sea level rise will increase the frequency and magnitude of coastal flooding impacts, posing an increasing threat to people, infrastructure, and coastal economies. 

People, economies, and infrastructure in harm's way

As sea level continues to rise, repeated disruptions by coastal flooding will aggravate existing impacts on infrastructure, initiate cascading impacts to the larger economy, and burden people.

Car driving through ocean water in downtown Miami, Florida

High tide flooding in downtown Miami, Florida. The useful life of roads and other infrastructure is shortened dramatically by repeated saltwater inundation.

Coastal hazards present significant direct costs related to infrastructure. More than 60,000 miles of U.S. roads and bridges in coastal floodplains are vulnerable to extreme storms and hurricanes, and maintenance and repair costs for these assets can run into the billions of dollars. Additionally, indirect economic costs (such as lost business) and adverse sociopsychological impacts have the potential to negatively affect people and their communities.Individuals exposed to weather- or climate-related disasters have been shown to experience negative mental health impacts. Among those most likely to suffer these impacts are some of society’s most vulnerable populations, including people who are elderly, economically disadvantaged, or experiencing homelessness.

Roads, bridges, tunnels, and pipelines, provide important lifelines between coastal and inland communities. Damages to this infrastructure results in cascading costs and national impacts. For example, the entire nation depends to some point on oil and gas distributed from critical energy infrastructure along the coast. Similarly, the entire country depends on coastal seaports for access to goods and services, as they handle 99% of overseas trade.

Incorporating adaptation into infrastructure upgrades will be expensive, yet investing in these interconnected lifelines would support community stability and the nation’s economy. A 2017 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that cumulative damages to coastal property across the contiguous United States would be significantly reduced if protective adaptation measures were implemented, compared to a scenario where no adaptation occurs.2

Though sea level rise scenarios specify an amount of sea level rise projected for 2100, seas won’t stop rising then. The ocean takes a very long time to respond to warmer conditions at Earth’s surface, so ocean waters will continue to warm and sea level will continue to rise for many centuries at rates equal to or higher than that of the current century.

The preceding text is abridged from Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States and the Fouth National Climate Assessment, Chapter 8, Coastal Effects

Managing coasts into the future

With higher seas, the past is no longer the key to the present or future. Historical erosion data and historical flood data simply aren't sufficient for managing coasts with higher water levels. Future coastal development must take sea level rise into account. 

The Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended, states that “because global warming may result in a substantial sea level rise with serious adverse effects..., coastal states must anticipate and plan for such an occurrence.” In particular, the act calls for states to protect natural resources and manage coastal development to minimize the loss of life, property, and other coastal zone assets caused by development in hazardous areas. Additionally, the Biggert-Waters Flood Reform Act of 2012 allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to update its federal insurance rate maps (FIRMs) to include “relevant information and data” on flood hazards caused by land-use changes and “future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.”

To learn more about the impacts of climate change and variability in coastal areas, visit the subtopic pages:

Banner Image Credit
Aerial views during an Army search and rescue mission show damage from Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast, Oct. 30, 2012. By U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Last modified
13 September 2019 - 4:30pm