Hurricane Sandy left dozens of low-lying NJ communities and towns along the shore and other waterways in severe disrepair back in 2012. Last year, Hurricane Ida submerged houses and blew out roads from the Delaware River to the Passaic. Both took homes, lives and livelihoods, yet it’s possible for the average person to look back on those damaging storms as anomalies.
Researchers have been warning us that would be folly. Storms like those, at greater frequency and potentially more potent, will be the new normal. How bad it gets is up to how fast we can curb and reverse the effects of climate change.
To help visualize what that new normal could look like, Christina Gerhardt, environmental humanities visiting professor at Princeton University’s High Meadows Environmental Institute, led a walk through Weber Street in Sayreville late last month, which was submerged under 18 feet of water during Hurricane Sandy. The group marked where the Raritan River is predicted to expand if sea level rise reaches five feet—sea level is predicted to rise up to one foot in the next 30 years, and up to seven feet by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, according the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The Sayreville walk was part of Gerhardt’s High Water Line: New Jersey project, which, in part, is designed to help people better visualize the impacts of sea level rise.
“I had been thinking about how we can reach a broader audience with regard to sea level rise,” Gerhardt said in a press release. “I wanted participants to have a sense of the inundation, and I wanted people to be physically involved. So a walking tour, where we have different people take turns with this liner, seemed to be a really good way of getting into the space and visualizing the impacts of sea level rise, and combining it with history and thinking about how we came to where we are now, but also considering possible future solutions seemed important.”
Now, many of the previous homeowners along that street in Sayreville accepted buyouts of their homes at pre-flood values through the state’s Blue Acres program; the state will return the area to open space (historically it was wetlands). Gov. Murphy announced an expansion of the Blue Acres program last week, from a street in Lambertville, where stormwater from Ida carried away two houses. The expansion includes $50 million in funds for buying out homes in Ida-impacted communities, and $10 million to improve storm surge resiliency in at-risk communities.
The federal government provided about $247 million to nearly 45,000 New Jerseyans in emergency assistance after Ida; indeed these superstorms are costly. Feds approved a $50-billion-plus package for all those on the seaboard affected by Sandy; and researchers recently found that $8 billion of that was caused by sea level rise. Instead of throwing money at recovery efforts indefinitely, long-term solutions are needed ot get people out of the riskiest locations locations (given the predicted rate of sea level rise, plus the tandem peril of more frequent and violent storms).
“Our communities are tired of recovering from storms; it is time we help each other become more resilient instead,” said NJ Commissioner of Environmental Protection Shawn LaTourette. “By expanding Blue Acres, right sizing our water infrastructure, strengthening flood standards, and improving our stormwater management, the Murphy administration will help our neighbors and businesses build stronger and more resilient.”
There are projects afoot. A joint flood mitigation project in Hoboken, Weehawken and Jersey City kicked off last year; the $230 million project, scheduled to be completed in 2025, will feature flood walls, barrier, underwater channels, repurposed pipes and more to battle storm surge, while providing open space on the surface.
Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state DEP introduced a $16 billion plan to build a series of flood control measures on 950 square miles along the Shore from Neptune to Cape May, including retractable storm surge gates, dikes, dunes and reestablished wetlands.
The are that will be affected by sea level rise and severe storms is likely to move inland; the coastline will literally encroach on land. If you lived through Sandy or Ida in an area at risk of sea level rise or flooding, you already know what level of risk you’re facing. But an independent group of researchers have created Climate Central, which allows users to plug in sea level rise variables and see which communities would be affected in a variety of circumstances.
For instance, with a moderately conservative prediction of sea level rise, an annual flood and moderate luck, many areas along the Shore will be under flood level, as well as much of the Meadowlands, parts of Monmouth County, and long stretches of communities along the Delaware Bay, around the Cape and up to Atlantic City.
Making matters worse is that sea level rise is happening quicker in New Jersey because our land is sinking. Marshlands in the Meadowlands may disappear within the next century if extensive mitigation efforts are not undertaken.
Sea level rise occurs because trapped greenhouse gasses are absorbed in the ocean, causing it to expand, and because the warming involved causes glaciers and ice caps to melt. Though the projections for just how much the sea level will rise in New Jersey are largely dependent on how quickly the world stops burning fossil fuels, it’s hard to say just how bad this could get. But given the ongoing investment in getting folks out of flood-prone and the riskiest coastal areas, it’s likely we’ve yet to see the worst.
To view predicted sea level rise in your area, access Climate Central’s tool here.