Sea Levels Have Risen Faster in Southeast U.S., and Scientists Think They Know Why

Pam Wright
Published: August 10, 2017

A man walks the flooded sidewalk along Indian Creek Drive in Miami Beach, Florida, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Some streets were closed during the peak of the high tide according to The Miami Herald.
(Emily Michot/The Miami Herald via AP)

For the past several years, people living in Florida have become accustomed to flooding in the streets as sea levels continue to rise. Scientists are now able to confirm that sea levels are creeping up and they can explain why.

According to a study published Wednesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers with the University of Florida say the sea has risen more than six times faster in the Southeast over the past few years than the average global sea level rise, about three-quarters of an inch per year from 2011 to 2015.

The result of this rise has been recurring coastal street flooding and sea insurgencies, particularly at high tide, from the Carolinas to Miami.

The scientists concluded that the "hot spot" of sea level rise that has affected areas from Cape Hatteras down the coast to Miami is due to a "one-two punch from naturally occurring climate variations," according to a press release.

The researchers say an interaction between El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is a shift in atmospheric pressure over the ocean that can have large effects on the winds blowing toward the American coast, created a pile up of water off the shoreline.

The hot spots, or bursts of accelerated sea rise like the one observed in the Southeast, can last from three to five years, according to the study. The scientists noted that other similar hot spots have occurred at different points along the East Coast over the past century.

(MORE: The Dark Side of the Supermoon: High Tides, Coastal Flooding Happening Around the World)

Co-author Andrea Dutton, an assistant professor in UF's department of geological sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the study’s findings suggest that future sea level rise resulting from global warming will also include these "hot spot periods superimposed on top of steadily rising seas."

“The important point here is that smooth projections of sea level rise do not capture this variability, so adverse effects of sea level rise may occur before they are predicted to happen,” Dutton said in a press release. “The entire U.S. Atlantic coastline is vulnerable to these hot spots that may amplify the severity of coastal flooding.”

Lead author Arnoldo Valle-Levinson, UF professor of civil and coastal engineering sciences in the College of Engineering, said hot spots are difficult to predict and noted that is it unclear if the hot spots will worsen with time. 

“It’s amazing to see construction along the East Coast. That’s the worst place to build anything,” Valle-Levinson, who described the future for some southeastern U.S. cities as “Venice-like,” said. “We need to understand that the ocean is coming.”

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