Guest Essay by Kip Hansen — 30 January 2020
“Atlantic City” is a song recorded by Bruce Springsteen, on his 1982 solo album Nebraska. My personal favorite version was recorded by The Band featuring Levon Helm on vocals and Garth Hudson, a personal acquaintance, on accordion. [ catch the YouTube here ]. The featured image for this essay is Atlantic City, as seen from space, at night — the brilliant white lights on the barrier island just off the New Jersey mainland.
Why Atlantic City? The governor of New Jersey, Gov. Philip D. Murphy, issued on Monday, 27 January 2020, his EXECUTIVE ORDER NO. 100. The NY Times states:
“New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects, Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced on Monday.”
“New Jersey has set a goal of producing 100 percent clean energy by 2050.”
Let’s look at the second bit first: 100 percent clean energy by 2050
What does New Jersey do today for energy?
New Jersey is better off than many U.S. states — it makes 52% of its electricity from nuclear power. Two power plants are located along the shores of the Delaware Bay just up the bay from Cape May, New Jersey. I have sailed past them many times — and once, embarrassingly, ran momentarily aground on a sandbar within the security zone. If New Jersey can resist the counter-productive forces demanding the shut-down of nuclear plants, they have a chance to get somewhere near the goal of producing their electricity without fossil fuels. Adding just one additional nuclear plant would get them very close — but unless they begin the process today, they will not meet their target date of 2050. While full-scale plants like Salem and Hope Creek will be impossible in this time frame, it would be possible to ramp up with Small Modular Reactors like those being installed as you read this in Idaho.
Currently, New Jersey produces 42% of its electrical power burning natural gas — and very little using coal and petroleum. Renewables make up only 3% of the mix, and New Jersey imports the equivalent of about 6% from other states.
Readers here are familiar with the problems faced by localities that declare “!00% clean energy by….” targets. Lots of information available on this site.
But what of the second point: “New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects”?
One can only say, “It is about time!”
The New Jersey shore is exemplified by Atlantic City — home to nine mega-hotels and casinos.
From space, via Google Earth, we see the elevation details:
All the greenish areas at the top and left are marsh, usually underwater, on the bay side of Atlantic City. You can see the gentle sloping sandy bottom of the Atlantic Ocean as it runs up to the beaches on the southern side.
So, what’s the worry?
Relative Sea Level is a change in the height of the sea surface where it hits the land. When the point where the sea surface hits the land is getting higher and higher, then we say we have rising Relative Sea Level. The relationship changes for two very different reasons: 1) The surface of the sea actually rises — gets “higher” in relation to the center of the Earth — like adding water to a bathtub raises the surface of the water in the tub. 2) The land moves, down or up — called Vertical Land Movement [VLM] — sinks towards the center of the Earth or rises up away from the center. This has two primary causes: movement of continental mass upward or downward and subsidence, downward movement, caused by erosion, compaction of soils, or extraction of ground water (which causes settling of the land).
And in Atlantic City? We have the situation demonstrated in the animation above. The sea is ever so slowly rising and the land is a bit less slowly sinking.
A recent report from Rutgers University prepared for the state of New Jersey includes this diagram:
How much is it sinking? Atlantic City is subsiding – sinking — twice as fast as the sea surface height is rising. Subsidence makes up approximately 2/3rds of Atlantic City’s relative sea level rise — and the only thing that really matters to New Jersey, the Jersey Shore, or Atlantic City is: How much higher is the sea going to get when measured against the shoreline?
As with all these modern seaside cities, we find that the city is already facing serious problems at today’s sea levels. They need no threat of sea level rise (or additional subsidence) to be in trouble. Why? They have built a modern city, complete with underground infrastructure, streets, highways, causeways, ten and twenty story condominium apartment buildings and massive hotel-casinos on a geologically ephemeral sandbar. According to NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer [quantitatively questionable but useful] Atlantic City will be entirely underwater with just 8 feet of additional sea level rise:
The animation starts at today’s Mean Higher-High Water — what most of us would simply call High Tide — we see a few low-lying areas in light green. As the sea rises (doesn’t matter if it is the land subsiding or the sea rising — it is both combined in this case), even just two feet of additional water causes some flooding:
Three feet of additional water causes significant flooding in bayside neighborhoods and even downtown.
How likely is such flooding?
According to NOAA, there is a 99% chance that Atlantic City will see 1.31 meters or 4.3 feet of water above Mean Sea level at least once in any given year. There is a trick here: NOAA gives height above Mean Sea Level, the Sea Level Viewer gives water above Mean Higher High Water. The difference is:
There is 2.4 feet between Mean Higher High Water and and Mean Sea Level at Atlantic City. — this means that the highest tides are already problematic for Atlantic City. Every year they see abnormal tides or storm surge that exceeds 2 feet above MHHW at least once. And, according to the Exceedance chart from NOAA, every year sees a 50% chance of seeing 5 feet above MSL, of 2.5 feet above MHHW — meaning flooding somewhere between the two images from the Sea Level Rise Viewer.
In 2012, Tropical Storm Sandy flooded 80% of Atlantic City. In 1976, Hurricane Belle caused a storm surge of 8.85 feet (2.70 m) in Atlantic City. Today, with 9 feet of storm surge, Atlantic City would look like this:
Alantic City is typical of the Jersey Shore. Storm surges and high tides that have already happened in the past represent devastating flooding and destruction.
With a change in Relative Sea Level of 4mm/year, a decade will bring 40mm or an additional 1.6 inches of relative sea surface height.
Any serious storm brings flooding to the Jersey Shore. Any strong hurricane, Category 3 or above not only threatens flooding and wind damage, but actual altered geography of the barrier island on which whole cities are built, in many recent cases causing new breaches (and here and here.). These urbanized barrier islands are endangered by their very nature and even more so when over-developed, as is the case with Atlantic City and almost all of the Jersey Shore.
So, what of Governor Murphy’s new Executive Order?
The Governor calls for the state to “require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels” — and it is far past time to do so. If they had had such requirements 50 years ago, much of Atlantic City would never have been built, particularly the housing developments on the bayside flats, built nearly at sea level. If they had had such requirements 20 years ago, mega-hotels and casinos would have been built only on the higher land and with protecting sea walls — building codes would have required hurricane-proofing and ensured safe evacuation routes. Such requirements would have forbidden any fresh water extraction from beneath low-lying barrier islands and subsidence would have been greatly reduced.
- At least New Jersey hasn’t shuttered its nuclear power plants which already produce 52% of its electricity. If they bring in Small Modular [nuclear] Reactors they could actually achieve their goal of CO2-free electrical production by 2050.
- New Jersey will not be fossil-fuel free anytime this century — no matter how many Executive Orders are issued. New Jersey is home to two major petroleum refineries which process, combined, over 400,000 barrels of oil per day. 83% of New Jersey’s total energy consumption is currently Natural Gas and Petroleum, with 16% from electrical power. There are nearly 3 million passenger automobiles registered in New Jersey — currently, as of December 2018, there are 23,267 electric vehicles registered in New Jersey (battery and hybrid) — 0.7% of registered vehicles. Transportation accounts for 46% of New Jersey’s total energy consumption.
- New Jersey, like many of the Atlantic states, has allowed unchecked development of its barrier islands — placing billions of dollars of infrastructure at risk along with millions of lives. If the “threat” of climate change is a necessary goad to change this foolish behavior, then at least something good has come of the climate change scare. It is long past time to rein in this self-destructive over-development of such fragile and by-nature-ephemeral environments.
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I have never been to Atlantic City. I have visited the northern parts of the Jersey Shore many times and spent a great deal of time sailing past — inshore and offshore — the barrier islands of the American Atlantic Coast. I have hunkered down while hurricanes have passed directly over our sturdy Southhampton-built British catamaran — and seen what those hurricanes have done to the barrier islands off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, re-configuring inlets, breaching islands, and cutting the homes of friends off from the mainland.
I hate to see overly alarmist climate change predictions used to make public policy — but at least in the case of New Jersey’s intention to make regulations regarding building on fragile, threatened barrier islands, the regulations will be a Win-Win.
The “fossil-fuel free future” however, is a fantasy and efforts to achieve it anytime soon, even if there are monumental technical breakthroughs in the next few years, will probably lead to net-destructive public policy.
I’d love to read your comments, particularly if you live or vacation on the barrier islands of America’s Atlantic Coast. And yes, I took poetic license with the Springsteen lyric….
Start your comment with “Kip…” if you are addressing me directly.
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