Coastal property purchase in light of recent sea level predictions?
July 21, 2015 12:31 PM   Subscribe

How seriously should I take James Hanson's sea level predictions as I decide where to buy our vacation/retirement home?

Mrs. Bastard and I are in the process of deciding on, and purchasing, property which will be our retirement home. We have our hearts set on living on or very near the oceanfront. However, I just read a Slate article about James Hansen's drastic sea level rise predictions (10 ft in 50 yrs). Obviously I don't want to put our life savings into a neighborhood that is doomed to sink beneath the sea in our lifetimes...
So Mefite climate authorities: How worried should I be about planning to live the next few decades on seafront land? Also, is there an online resource that illustrates what coastlines will look like as sea levels rise?
posted by BigLankyBastard to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This interactive map site lets you pick anywhere on either US coast and see how different sea levels will impact that area.
posted by briank at 12:42 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

The biggest concern might be resale value. Keep in mind that mortgages are inherantly long-term thinking. You should ask yourself if people will be more worried about sea level rise twenty years from now than they are today, and the answer is almost certainly yes.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:44 PM on July 21, 2015

A recent Union of Concerned Scientists report [PDF] indicates that the increasingly unstable federal National Flood Insurance Program is effectively the only source of flood protection left for many homeowners. Private insurers take the risks associated with climate change seriously and are voting with their feet - so the potential inability to insure the house against flooding at some point in the future is something you'll also want to take into account.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:51 PM on July 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I once spent some time looking for a "safe" place to live. I concluded it was a case of pick your poison. There are no safe places to live. You just need to decide whether earthquakes or hurricanes or tornados or any number of other things is your personal deal breaker.

Something I say a lot: it is the end of the world as we know it -- and I feel fine. I have a long history of saying this in discussions about environmental issues in particular. My unfinished bachelor's degree is in Environmental Resource Management.

When I say that, I often tell stories like the one about when Sadam Hussein set fire to all those oil wells on his way out of Kuwait. Initial predictions were that they would burn for years and it would be a really huge and ongoing environmental disaster. IIRC, they were put out in a mere six weeks because crack teams from around the world converged on Kuwait and, with the backing of the world, invented new techniques on the spot to snuff them out. This did not make the news. We did not celebrate this amazing accomplishment the way we had talked up the horror we expected. It was barely mentioned as a footnote in articles with a more dramatic angle, such human interest stories about how people were being displaced. We certainly also did not celebrate the fact that in the wake of the fires and enormous water use to put them out, the desert bloomed like no one had seen in at least twenty years.

If you go back a few decades and look at articles that predicted what life would be like around the turn of the century, they consistently fail to predict the invention of the computer and the Internet and the enormous impact that has had on life on earth. Humans are incredibly bad at predicting the future.

Speaking of the turn of the century, Y2K was another thing that was supposed to just destroy modern life as we know it. Banks and other critical functions were supposed to shut down and fail en masse, crippling the world economy. Believers in this scenario stocked up on food and guns and created private little compounds. Quietly behind the scenes, programmers with "out of date" skills in the coding language behind the bug diligently worked to resolve the issue. When a new century dawned, we had a bunch of VCRs that couldn't tell the date or be properly programmed in advance to record TV shows at set dates and times, but all the critical functions continued to function.

I am not saying this is not a concern. I am saying that if you want to buy oceanfront property, you should do so. And then become politically active in ways that will help make sure the water never rises so high that your house becomes inundated or uninsurable or otherwise worthless. Because if that sea rise does happen, humanity is going to have much larger problems than the lost dollar value of former oceanfront properties now lining the sea floor. And since that prediction is predicated upon human activity, human activity can be altered to avoid this "inevitability." We have successfully done so before. It usually does not get anywhere near the fanfare that our dire dystopian predictions routinely get.
posted by Michele in California at 1:02 PM on July 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

How seriously should I take James Hanson's sea level predictions as I decide where to buy our vacation/retirement home?

We took it seriously, FWIW. We only looked at houses on high ground when we bought 10 years ago. People thought we were insane liberal hippy treehuggers and basically pointed and laughed. After five straight years of severe winter flooding with emergency workers rowing out to calls, they're not laughing now...
posted by DarlingBri at 1:03 PM on July 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I inherited a small condo on the east coast of Florida about 6-7 years back. Nothing special, not worth much at all, but something I might have held onto for the future.

I couldn't find anyone to insure it. I searched, and then searched more. I finally found someone who would give me fairly crappy insurance for three times as much as I insure my house in New England. This wasn't flood insurance we are talking about -- just regular insurance for real estate in an area that is facing the near and ugly side of climate change. I can't imagine what flood insurance in truly risky places must cost right now, and it certainly influenced my decision to sell the condo as quickly as possible.

I think you have to assume that with each big event, the rates will get worse, and the areas they simply won't offer insurance to will grow.
posted by instead of three wishes at 1:10 PM on July 21, 2015

I have the same concerns as you. My family has a beach house on a bay, just off of the Gulf of Mexico. My children are in the fifth generation of the family enjoying the beach. I am concerned that they will be the last. The property is at four feet above sea level, and the house is at 10.5 feet above sea level. We raised it three feet after the last major hurricane, and I suppose that we could raise it another few feet, at great cost.

The sea level is a real concern, but not the major one. The oceans are going to get warmer, which will feed stronger hurricanes. Any seafront property on the Gulf or Atlantic coasts is subject to hurricane risks. Any year could be the last year we enjoy the house.

Flood and wind storm insurance is getting harder to acquire, and the coverage is falling. It is just a matter of time, and a few severe storms, before the private insurance availability disappears.

So why don't we give up and sell this almost 100 year old house? Waterside living is just so pleasant. The water, sun, breezes, dolphins, boats, sea birds, swimming, and gathering together is just to enjoyable. We won't give that up until we have to.

If you are looking for an area that has reasonable prospects, I suggest the upper Florida panhandle. Unlike other areas on the Gulf, this one has significant elevations behind the beaches. You can establish a home that can stand above the rising waters, if you are willing to be a little behind the current beach. There will be the hurricanes to contend with, so build stoutly.

Otherwise, go to the beach and enjoy it. Realize that this might be the last year you get to do that before the winds come and sweep everything that is familiar away.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 1:11 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

So the best answer to "how high is sea level likely to rise?" is "I dunno, how risk-adverse are you?" Personally, I have a degree in environmental science (with a specialty in climate history) and I know people who have lost houses on the ocean. As such, I am on the VERY cautious side of that equation.

I'm helping advise some relatives on this right now, and they are only looking at ocean-view property (a) in an area with a wide tidal range (i.e. not Florida), and (b) in an area with a nice steep hill running back from the ocean. The areas they are potentially interested in have ocean views, BUT do not have ocean frontage. They're also well above the current flood plain and out of any areas which would be obviously vulnerable to erosion.

Because this isn't just about sea level rise -- you also have to consider the presence of erosion barriers (e.g. did they recently remove the mangrove swamps? is the beach known to be eroding?) and the weather the area gets (areas with open ocean exposure may experience a lot more erosion during storms -- also, areas with more frequent hurricanes will have to deal with more frequent storm surge events).

It's also worth considering the fact that lot of towns are getting new flood maps -- this happened recently in my town, and houses that are suddenly in a flood plain are a lot cheaper than houses above the flood plain, primarily because flood insurance is unaffordable. Personally, I would suggest avoiding both mapped flood plains (per FEMA) and geological flood plains (nice flat areas along a body of water that can potentially flood) as FEMA flood maps get updated and the boundary of that mapped floodplain pushes further into the geological floodplain.

Your options will depend a lot on where your prospective oceanfront property is -- obviously there are very few large hills on the ocean in Florida. In California, you can find nice tall hills along the ocean front but they're often subject to landslide risk or erosion.
posted by pie ninja at 1:15 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a cool tool put out by the USGS that gives a nice visual quantification of risks to coastlines from extreme storms, sea level rise, and general propensity for change over time. (I work with the folks who built this, but it isn't my project)
posted by rockindata at 1:19 PM on July 21, 2015

Sea level rise is real, and other posters have covered the practical aspects of buying property. However, I wouldn't make any decisions on the basis of that Slate article.

A better discussion of the work is over at the Washington Post, but you should wait a bit to see the community's reaction.

I work in this field, and I can't comment on the validity of their study because they're publicizing their results before peer review. The draft isn't even publicly available yet. This pisses me off.
posted by Metasyntactic at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Eh, I wouldn't be so glib as pick your poison. The threat caused by weather events, or riots, or to some extent even fires of various causes can't be effectively mapped at high resolution. Topography around waterways, on the other hand, are eminently mappable.

Recall the recent ask about a neighborhood being relocated to meet more stringent flood control and basin planning. This is a very real thing. The federal government might be useless in this regard, but public health folks and city planners/engineers are already on it. My partner--who is involved in commercial real estate, city planning, etc.--goes to meetings pretty routinely in which industries and city departments are already discussing the coming impacts of climate change on zoning.

So, with that in mind, restricting your search to areas unlikely to be rezoned as uninsurable for flooding hazards (e.g. flat basins near the coast) and aiming for hills and other features might be a good idea.

(I also say this as someone whose house is within visual range of an ocean and a bay and, on this map of the impact of 200' of sea rise, about 1 foot above the water--beachfront!)
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:01 PM on July 21, 2015

When you say oceanfront, do you mean rocky cliffs or gentle sand dunes? Big difference in terms of sea level rise impacts. No, Florida shouldn't be on any sane person's shopping list.
posted by wilful at 6:29 PM on July 21, 2015

I took it seriously. I looked at a property in an area that was only a block from the water and is only barely a metre or so higher than high tide. I really liked the location and short term it would be fine but I was worried about long term implications. I don't expect to make a killing on my place short term but it would seriously suck if in 30 years or so I couldn't sell at a decent price because banks wouldn't want to issue mortgages for 30 years beyond then.

I also considered what insurance would cover and flooding from sea inundation caused by storms wasn't covered. Being only a metre or so above sea level makes it very likely that if there's a bad storm at high tide I would've gotten wet and it wasn't worth it to me to have to factor in those semi regular repair costs which could go from just trashing my garden to totally destablising the building.

My friends teased me a lot for being totally doomsdayish about housing location but I figure a house purchase is for the long term. I'd have no problem renting somewhere totally seafront because the odds are low for any given day. But sinking decades of money into a place? I'm pretty risk adverse and as lovely as it would've been to live metres from the beach I feel more secure being further away and up a hill. We had a pretty bad storm a few months ago and my street didn't lose power at all whereas half the region was out for nearly a week so I already feel like my planning had value :-)
posted by kitten magic at 6:43 PM on July 21, 2015

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