An estimate of increases in storm surge risk to property from sea level rise in the first half of the twenty-first century

Author: Ross N. Hoffman, Peter Dailey, Susanna Hopsch, Rui M. Ponte, Katherine J. Quinn, Emma M. Hill and Brian Zachry
November 18, 2010
Journal Article
Weather, Climate, and Society

Hoffman, Ross N., Peter Dailey, Susanna Hopsch, Rui M. Ponte, Katherine Quinn, Emma M. Hill, Brian Zachry, 2010: An Estimate of Increases in Storm Surge Risk to Property from Sea Level Rise in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century. Wea. Climate Soc., 2, 271–293.
doi: 10.1175/2010WCAS1050.1

Sea level is rising as the World Ocean warms and ice caps and glaciers melt. Published estimates based on data from satellite altimeters, beginning in late 1992, suggest that the global mean sea level has been rising on the order of 3 mm yr−1. Local processes, including ocean currents and land motions due to a variety of causes, modulate the global signal spatially and temporally. These local signals can be much larger than the global signal, and especially so on annual or shorter time scales.

Even increases on the order of 10 cm in sea level can amplify the already devastating losses that occur when a hurricane-driven storm surge coincides with an astronomical high tide. To quantify the sensitivity of property risk to increasing sea level, changes in expected annual losses to property along the U.S. Gulf and East Coasts are calculated as follows. First, observed trends in sea level rise from tide gauges are extrapolated to the year 2030, and these changes are interpolated to all coastal locations. Then a 10 000-yr catalog of simulated hurricanes is used to define critical wind parameters for each event. These wind parameters then drive a parametric time-evolving storm surge model that accounts for bathymetry, coastal geometry, surface roughness, and the phase of the astronomical tide. The impact of the maximum storm surge height on a comprehensive inventory of commercial and residential property is then calculated, using engineering models that take into account the characteristics of the full range of construction types.

Average annual losses projected to the year 2030 are presented for regions and key states and are normalized by aggregate property value on a zip code by zip code basis. Comparisons to the results of a control run reflecting the risk today quantify the change in risk per dollar of property on a percentage basis. Increases in expected losses due to the effect of sea level rise alone vary by region, with increases of 20% or more being common. Further sensitivity tests quantify the impact on the risk of sea level rise plus additional factors, such as changes in hurricane frequency and intensity as a result of rising sea surface temperatures.

Accepted for publication: November, 2010. Received: October 26, 2010.

Authors: Ross N. Hoffman†, Peter Dailey‡, Susanna Hopsch‡†, Rui M. Ponte†, Katherine Quinn†, Emma M. Hill§ and Brian Zachry‡. 

Author organizations:

  • †Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., 131 Hartwell Avenue, Lexington, MA 02421-3126
  • AIR Worldwide Corp., Boston, MA 02116
  • §Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA 02138; now at Earth Observatory of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, 639798