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Coastal areas facing issues beyond the recent earthquakes

Long before we got stories of hurricanes, flooding, forest fires and other weather hazards associated with climate change, earthquakes were the natural disaster most often linked to the West Coast, particularly California.

Now experiencing the types of climate-change woes predicted decades ago, California was last week hit with the largest earthquakes its seen in decades. In the midst of the July 4 festivities, southeastern California experienced a 6.4-magnitude quake, and was rocked by a 7.1-magnitude follow-up the next day.

The seismic activity gave rise to renewed talk of the “big one” that might someday hit the area, a recognition of fault lines that run up on the coast into British Columbia. It’s a threat that just adds to the risk of coastal living these days.

And it’s a risk faced by many: more than half of those living in the U.S., for instance, live in coastal areas. The draw is obvious given the natural beauty and the opportunities living near water bring. But such areas are also prone to many natural hazards such as erosion, harmful algal blooms, big storms, flooding, tsunamis, and sea level rise.

Globally, more than a billion people – most of them in Asia – live in low-lying coastal regions. In the foreseeable future, some of these areas could be inundated by rising sea levels. The inhabitants will be forced to find ways of coping with the water or to abandon some areas altogether.

Climate change is placing increasing pressure on coastal regions which are already seriously affected by intensive human activity. This raises the question of whether – or to what extent – these areas will retain their residential and economic value in the decades and centuries to come, or whether they may instead pose a threat to the human race.

While scientists continue to study climate change and its impact, we still don’t know what will happen to coastal ecosystems over time.

We do know, however, that the climate is changing. Whether or not you believe humans have anything to do with it – scientific evidence says we do, skeptics cling to conspiracy theories – there’s no denying the changes in progress. Nor is there any denying the costs, which will be paid in death, misery and dollars. Lots and lots of dollars.

Much of the coming pain will be borne by coastal areas and already fragile ecosystems where shifts in weather patterns will have the largest impacts. But even here, removed from rising oceans, intensifying hurricanes and desertification, we’re going to pay the price.

Using computer modeling to predict changes through to the end of the century, researchers are trying to gauge the impact if we moved to mitigate climate change to varying degrees, but many scenarios assume we won’t act quickly enough, if at all, to alter the course we’re on. More extreme weather is on the way, bringing more natural disasters and a whole lot of extra costs.

Just one example can be found out on coastal British Columbia. In low-lying Richmond, flooding has always been an issue. Keeping tidal waters at bay has already cost millions. Now, with already rising sea levels and increasing odds for a 100-year sea rise event, the costs are on the rise. Property owners are already assessed a fee to pay for dike upgrades and improvements to drainage systems.

More costly still, the community is building upwards, with the living areas of all new homes mandated to be above predicted high water marks.

The same scenario is playing out in communities all along the heavily populated coast. Many are already exploring abandonment scenarios, whereby homeowners move out and let the sea take over – with governments expected to buy out the properties, even though owners knew the risk when purchasing. Such “managed retreat” plans will add to the costs, though it would be cheaper than trying to keep the water out.

Perhaps even more problematic is the impact rising sea levels will have on some municipal water systems, essentially turning fresh groundwater into a brackish mixture.

Other parts of the globe now face the same issues, though with greater impacts and costs.

Here in Waterloo Region, rising sea levels aren’t a direct problem. Hurricanes and typhoons aren’t a consideration. With a lack of mountains, avalanches and mudslides don’t factor in. (Those issues will have an indirect effect on our wallets, however, especially where food availability and prices go.)

What we will face, however, is storm damage – tornadoes are a natural disaster we do see – shifts in farming practices, and more invasive species and diseases.  We’re already paying the price in terms of weather-related incidents, both through our taxes (flooding, snow clearing, for instance) and through private channels such as insurance claims, where severe weather is now costing about $1 billion a year.

Severe weather is on the rise across Canada. Events that used to happen every 40 years can now be expected to happen every six. Homes are damaged more frequently by heavy rainfall, hail damage, storm surges, tornadoes and hurricanes. Once-in-a-century flooding events will likely reoccur much sooner. The same with disasters elsewhere. There’s no denying the devastation, and the huge economic impact.

We may not face the prospect of sliding away from the rest of the continent, but we’ll be paying a physical and a monetary price nonetheless.

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