Rising Sea Levels on the Radar for D.C.

By Patrick Farrell

A study conducted at the University of Maryland, College Park shows that a rise in sea levels within the next century could cause severe damage to city and federal property in Washington, D.C.

The research was conducted by the Clark School of Engineering Center for Technology and Systems Management, and was led by Professor Bilal Ayyub, Haralamb Braileanu, and Naeem Qureshi.

Initially published in the fall of last year, the findings are now particularly important after the so-called “Frankenstorm” – Hurricane Sandy – made its way up the east coast this past weekend leaving a wake of destruction.

While short-term problems are mainly limited to saltwater permeating into freshwater systems, the long-term implications are much more significant.

According to the study, a projected sea level rise (SLR) of 5m over the next 100 years would cause an upwards of $24.6 billion of damage to both property and infrastructure.

“Decisions must be made in the near future by lawmakers or city planners on how to reduce the impact of and adapt to SLR,” the study says, citing thermal expansion of the ocean and melting polar ice sheets as the main reasons for the predicted rise in sea levels.

By 2043, if the water levels rise .1 meters, the city of Washington would incur an estimated $2.1 billion in damage. At that same level, 23 buildings at Bolls Air Force base would be flooded as well, the study says.

Furthermore, according to the research, 68,000 residents would be located in flooded areas at that same SLR of .1 meters.

“A ‘do- nothing’ approach would directly lead to irrevocable losses,” the study says, ” A short-term solution, like creating a small flood barrier, may give the city time to examine this challenge and produce cost-effective solutions.”

As for possible plans of action, the study suggests that the city “build countermeasures,” “modify land use,” and “reducing current financial investments in the affected area.”

The study was published in October 2011 in “Risk Analysis,” an international journal published by the Society for Risk Analysis.