Sea Level Rise in Washington, D.C. Could Have Significant Impact

In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Maryland, sea level rise in the nation’s capital could lead to billions of dollars in damages by 2043.

According to current trends and predictions, Washington D.C. will experience flooding and infrastructure damage in both the short- and long-term due to sea level rise (SLR). The researchers say the rise is linked to thermal expansions of the oceans and melting of global ice sheets due to global warming. Short-term predictions suggest that sea level will rise 0.1 meters by the year 2043 and flood about 103 properties and other infrastructure, costing the city about $2.1 billion.

By 2150, 0.4 meters of SLR is likely to impact 142 properties. For long-term effects if sea level rise were to reach 5.0 meters, the authors warn of significant damages in excess of $24.6 billion to commercial buildings, military installations, museums and a number of government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Recent weather events such as Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 and high tides and rains in April of 2011 triggered waterfront flooding in the city and Northern Virginia. The authors warn that extreme weather may increase the chances of flooding as sea levels increase.

To fully assess the potential damage, the researchers used Geographic Information System (GIS) tools and data from government agencies as well as real-estate listings for property values. The results show that the current rate of SLR in Washington, D.C., is about 3.16 millimeters per year. The low levels of increase expected in the near future, SLR would lead to a minimal loss of city area. However, if 0.1 meters of SLR occurs by 2043 as the authors expect, nearby Bolling Air Force Base would lose 23 buildings.

The authors conclude, "Decisions must be made in the near future by lawmakers or city planners on how to reduce the impact of and adapt to SLR. A planned retreat is not an option when dealing with SLR in such an important area. Cost-effective methods to deal with SLR should be developed, and long-term solutions that extend well into this millennium are necessary."

Researchers at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland published the paper entitled “Prediction and Impact of Sea Level Rise on Properties and Infrastructure of Washington, DC”. The article will appear in the November 2012 issue of Risk Analysis, published by the Society for Risk Analysis.