by Vishal Mehan
Atlantis, the mythical island that sank mysteriously around 8400 BC has always been a popular topic amongst both meteorologists and mythologists. But the ancient ballad may very well be a 21st century phenomenon, with scientists predicting sea levels to rise by a minimum of 7.5 feet by 2100, and that estimate is rising alarmingly fast. In July of 2017, a trillion-ton iceberg seven times the size of New York City broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica.1 While recent hurricanes have reminded us how quickly nature’s forces can cause widespread destruction, damages caused by slower natural phenomenon like rising sea levels can be even more damaging globally. Yes, climate change is real and happening all around us.
The United States is a number driven economy and has an impressive GDP of 18.57 trillion US dollars. In a much less numerically optimistic outlook, by 2100 it could stand to lose a combined 882 million dollars in property damage alone along coastal areas in the US. Experts foresee almost 300 US cities would lose more than half their homes and 36 cities would be completely submerged.2 South-east Florida currently experiences 10 tidal floods annually, and that number is estimated to reach around 240 by 2045, where one in 8 homes would be completely underwater by that time. The National Flood Insurance Program is already more than $20 billion in debt3 and to put things in perspective, the median value of an insurance claim on a home at risk of being submerged is $296,296 and the value of the average U.S. home is only $187,000.2 Nationwide increases in home sales came in at 2.6% year-on-year from 2016, but dropped by an astounding 7.6% in flood prone areas of Miami-Dade County.4 Economists are predicting another real estate downturn in the near future, and already nearly a trillion dollars in coastal property is being covered at below-market rates, which is a bubble just waiting to burst. Climate change poses one of the largest long-term threats to global investments, intensifying and accelerating each day.
Properties by the beach and on the water cost a lot more money, and the ‘cheaper’ localities were generally inland. This trend has already started to slowly reverse and coastal property devaluation has already begun, but there are much bigger problems at hand. Buildings higher up won’t be much better off, with foundations getting weaker with eroding soil and rusting steel. As for weak institutional foundations, banks would completely stop writing mortgages on costal homes the moment the threat became more imminent, immediately reducing the tax base by up to 20%, further aggravating the situation.6 Flooded roads, dangerous water transportation and a complete failure of underground transit systems would prove catastrophic to an economy that has never prioritized modern and secure transportation which is already uncomfortably tenuous and overburdened. Sean Becketti, the chief economist for Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant, issued a dire prediction. “It is only a matter of time”, he wrote, “before sea level rise and storm surges become so unbearable along the coast that people will leave, ditching their mortgages and potentially triggering another housing meltdown — except this time, it would be unlikely that these housing prices would ever recover.”7
The good news, if any is that there is a rising awareness of the situation to come and its implications. A full disclosure of high risk flood areas to buyers is being administered, City Hall is proposing a sea barrier across the Boston harbor and new developments are including flood gates and modern drainage systems.5 Developers are increasingly thinking of creative ways to utilize ground space as they start building higher, keeping mechanical equipment on roofs, and using reinforced concrete bulkheads for property facades facing the sea. Brickell City Centre, a new mixed-use Miami development includes a subterranean parking lot that is designed to be impervious to water and RXR Realty in Glen Cove is raising the ground level of its 56-acre waterfront development, Garvies Point, by 6 to 10 feet, an effort requiring enough soil, sand and gravel to fill 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools.8
Fighting back against climate change and preparing for the inevitable rising sea levels seems to be the way forward, but a trend that only seems to be worsening will eventually have to be dealt with at its source, by reducing emissions and a global scale reforestation effort. To quote Barack Obama, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it’s happening here and it’s happening now.” It remains to be seen if governments and developers can conjure a temporary remedy, hopefully before the first time a boat mast fails to clear the bottom of one of the many beautiful bridges in the country because the water level has risen too far.