The business implications of sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast, and especially in Delaware

Posted by on Sep 27, 2014

[The is the text of a keynote speech presented at “Green Hospitality 2014,” Dover Downs, Dover, Delaware, 9/16/2014]

“The business implications of sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast, and especially in Delaware”

by Ralph Meima


Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Dover Downs and John and Evadne for giving me this opportunity to speak with you.

My topic today is sea-level rise along the Atlantic seaboard, and the potential implications for the travel and tourism business, real estate development, and relevant public infrastructure.

I’d like to use this unique opportunity to try to stimulate your thinking. I want us to envision an unfamiliar challenge together. I want us to think about the plans and investments we may need to make.

First, some basic facts and assumptions:

  • Delaware has a mean elevation above sea level of 60 feet, and Sussex County’s is less than half of that.
  • Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DENREC) estimates that ocean levels will rise approximately 1.6 feet by 2050, and is evaluating scenarios of more than twice that.
  • Sea-level rise is driven by many factors, including the melting of polar ice and the thermal expansion of the oceans’ water.
  • Of course, there is great uncertainty:

o   In the climate scientists’ prediction models;

o   Whether certain major events, like the rapid melting of the Greenland icecap or West Antarctic Ice Sheet, or the release of undersea and underground methane, will happen as imagined;

o   Whether individual storm surges will be amplified by high tides – like what happened in the infamous Ash Wednesday Nor’easter of 1962 – or offset by low tides – like what saved the Delaware Shore when Hurricane Sandy came by in 2012.

But, let’s put all the complexity and uncertainty aside for a moment. Let’s just say that the ocean rises, and we have choices in how we adapt. What then?

My interest in this subject was prompted by a public forum organized by The News Journal newspaper and PNC Bank two years ago – August 2012. I subsequently posted a blog article for the Resilient Design Institute entitled “Delawareans Cultivate Public Awareness of Sea-level Rise.”

After the forum, I went back to my dad’s house in South Bethany, situated on the canals that lead to Little Assawoman Bay. The weather was calm and hot and beautiful.

With sea level rise in mind, I watched the water in the canal lap at its retaining walls, and thought about the flat, sandy vacation home lots in all directions. The canal is connected to the ocean through a chain of brackish channels and bays that link Indian River Inlet to the north with the Ocean City inlet to the south. Its average level is essentially sea level. Since I was a child, it has apparently risen a few inches. Hard to say. It seemed high.

I then tried to imagine what the effects would be of a three-foot rise.

It is clear that, if the ocean rises three feet, parts of the Delmarva Peninsula located up to hundreds of yards or even miles inland will revert to tidal salt marsh or open water (unless something radical is done). Roads, lawns, homes, commercial properties, and farms will be swamped. There will be extensive erosion, salt infiltration, and slumping. Beach replenishment and dunes – which protect against storm waves – will be of little help against a permanent rise. The ocean will just sneak around the back.

Tourism accounts for at least 10% of Delaware’s economy. Each house near the shore is worth hundreds of thousands, or millions. Hotels and resorts are worth much more. Jobs, families, and communities are dependent on tourism’s economic engine. A whole place and a culture has been slowly, gradually built up around the Atlantic beaches, linked to generations of people living in a region stretching from Richmond to New York. There is a lot at stake.

With three feet in mind, I want you to imagine two scenarios. Both are extreme. Both are going to involve a lot of effort, a lot of decisions, a lot of money. I believe one of them is part of this region’s future. Which one that is, I’m not sure.

In one, the Atlantic Ocean wins, and a great retreat begins. Attacked head-on, beaches are eroded, the dunes breached, and – over years or decades – people move or abandon the expensive properties directly in harm’s way. Valuable assets are lost, affecting family fortunes. Towns lose tax revenue. Stranded assets – literally “stranded,” because strand means beach – are written off. There is little new investment. The beach migrates inland – a messy process, with drifting dunes, drowned woods and wetlands, fouled water, derelict asphalt and utility lines and foundations sticking up through the sand. Not an attractive coastline. People take their money, their vacations, and their dreams, and go elsewhere: lakes, mountains, higher rocky coastlines. The Delmarva resorts we know are gone. Everyone adjusts.

History is no stranger to this sort of transition. It has happened many times before, when for example lakes have dried up or islands sunk.

Then there’s another scenario. Call it the Dutch scenario. The Dutch as an ethnic group emerged on low land – “Nether Land” – in the delta of the Rhine River. The problem was that, when North Sea storms and high tides coincided, it was flooded. So, over the centuries, they built dikes, canals, sea walls, levees, and pumps (powered by windmills) to protect their farms and towns from high water.

In the Netherlands, it’s a common sight to be driving across open land and see a canal boat moving along a man-made embankment ahead, forty feet above you. As you cross the polder countryside, you pass through levees at intervals, with big gates ready to close where the road intersects them. Or you drive along the top of the dikes. When you get to the beach resorts in the Netherlands, and there are lots of them, from Cadzand in the south to Scheveningen, Noordwijk, and others – they play en equally important role in the economy – although the weather isn’t nearly as nice there as it is here – you see that the coast is armored with vast concrete claddings, breakwaters, jetties, wave-calming structures, and other defenses against the sea. This is how they hang onto the 26% of their country that’s below sea level, and the other 29% that is susceptible to river flooding.

It’s precarious, but it works because the Dutch decided it was worth it. The Dutch refused to simply withdraw from their flood-prone land and either crowd together on the limited higher ground or emigrate. Now, they face their own sea-level rise challenges, of course, just like us.

Back to Delmarva. I think the biggest question is not whether the sea level is rising, or what technology there is to deal with it, or even how we are going to pay for and administer it. We usually figure these things out when it’s critical. I think the biggest question is whether the local and seasonal population, landowners, business-owners, local governments, state governments, and the federal government are going to collectively choose Scenario One or Scenario Two. I really don’t have a good sense of where it’s going to land. We’re Americans, and a major part of our history has been mobile: picking up and moving on when the mills close down or the aquifer dries up or the gold runs out or the livestock business moves to a different continent. A history of migration.

I have no hunch about the likelihood of either scenario. But I know what I would prefer,

Imagine crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge someday, heading for Fenwick Island. Somewhere around St. Georges, you notice that the road is gradually getting more elevated, and as you drive down the home stretch beyond Milford, you’re on a concrete, crushed stone, and steel dike as wide as Coastal Highway One, thirty feet above the landscape, the surf eventually visible to your left through the buildings remaining on the ocean side of the dike, and the inland landscape now revealed from that height on your right. Locks at the Indian River and Ocean City inlets open and close with the winds and tides, and large pumping stations are able to move water out of the protected areas in emergencies. Storms are scary – crews patrol the dikes and locks all night, carefully monitoring their condition. But, most importantly, the new infrastructure protects property values, keeps the vacationers coming, preserves and even expands the regional job market, and on top of that creates elevated, scenic locations that restaurants, hotels, and other businesses take advantage of. The new landscape offers new possibilities.

To be sure, this adjustment has not been easy. Some areas are deemed not worth protecting, and left to nature’s forces. The politics around this, and around how to pay for the Dutch-inspired infrastructure program, are tough and difficult, and go on for a generation. There are differences from town to town, county to county, and state to state. The expressions “in-dike” and “out-dike” enter the vernacular. In-dike properties are worth a lot more than out-dike properties.

But, in political speeches and private conversations, there are regular reminders that, while “they ain’t making any more waterfront property,” it sure is moving around a lot these days, and the Delaware Shore managed to preserve and even strengthen its economy through a large infrastructure commitment inspired by its successes in a nation partway around the world.

Of course, maybe this all would have already happened if the Dutch had retained control of their colony in Lewes!

Thank you







One Comment

  1. It is so nice to see a big vision spun out, not as an all-or-nothing manifesto, but as a story of possibility. Wherever we are in coastal zones, we have to face up to sea level rise and consider choices — beyond engineering choices, how we want our lives and communities to be.


  1. The business implications of sea-level rise along the Atlantic coast … ← Delmarva News - […] Delmarva Business News- Dover DE Business […]

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