MAY 2020

Sea Level Rise in New Jersey: Projections and Impacts

New Jersey is a hot spot for sea level rise, with far-reaching consequences for coastal communities, ecosystems, and the economy.

Sea level rise poses a threat to people and property in coastal areas around the world and is especially acute in New Jersey. Sea level at the Jersey Shore has risen about 18 inches since the early 1900s, more than twice the global mean of about 8 inches. Even more concerning, the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. Research conducted at Rutgers University indicates that global sea level rise in the 20th century (about 0.5 ft/century) was the fastest in at least 3,000 years. The rate over the last quarter century (1.0 ft/century) was about twice as fast.

Heat trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, causing seawater to expand. Scientists call this process “thermal expansion,” and it’s responsible for about 40% of global sea level rise in the last 25 years.

The melting of glaciers and ice sheets is another major contributor to rising oceans. Naturally, the faster ice sheets melt (and there is evidence that ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica is speeding up), the more sea level rise will accelerate. The loss of glaciers and ice sheets currently accounts for about 45% of global sea level rise.

The problem is compounded in New Jersey by at least two other factors unrelated to climate change. In what amounts to a geologic seesaw, the mid-Atlantic region is subsiding, or sinking, while land to the north once covered by Ice Age glaciers rises up. Pumping large amounts of water from aquifers also adds to the sinking of New Jersey’s coastline.

Figure 1: New Jersey sea level rise above the year 2000 (1991-2009 average) baseline (ft)*

Projecting the magnitude and rate of sea level rise in the coming decades is a challenging task. Much depends on future greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent global warming. Scientists are also intensively studying Greenland and Antarctica to better understand the dynamics of melting ice sheets and the possibility that they are approaching the point of irreversible, catastrophic meltdown.

To account for this uncertainty, scientists project future sea level rise as a range of probabilities (see figure 1, above). For example, according to a 2019 report from Rutgers University, it is likely – meaning at least a 66% chance – that New Jersey will experience sea level rise of 0.5 to 1.1 feet between 2000 and 2030, and 0.9 to 2.1 feet between 2000 and 2050.

Looking farther into the future, the rate of sea level rise will depend upon how successful the world is at curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. If we meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold global warming to no more than 2°C above early industrial temperatures, New Jersey is likely to experience sea level rise of 1.3 to 2.7 feet by 2070, and up to 4 feet by 2100. In a scenario where there are few to limited actions to reduce fossil fuel emissions, New Jersey is likely to see sea level rise of 1.5 to 3.5 feet by 2070, and 2.3 to 6.3 feet by 2100.

While it’s impossible to pin down the exact level of future sea level rise, there’s no doubt it’s already having serious consequences along the coast. Of these, flooding is perhaps the most obvious and impactful.

In some cases, coastal flooding is the result of storm tide, which is the total observed seawater level during a storm, resulting from the combination of storm surge and the astronomical tide. Because of sea level rise, storm tides start at a higher baseline and push seawater farther inland. Hurricanes Sandy and Irene are all-too-vivid illustrations of just how destructive and potentially deadly storm tides can be.

High-tide flooding – sometimes called sunny-day or nuisance flooding – has become a bigger problem, too. The number of high-tide flooding days in Atlantic City, for instance, has increased since the mid-20th century, from an average of less than one per year in the 1950s to an average of 8 per year in the 2000s. While generally less dangerous than storm tides, high-tide flooding is still damaging and costly.

In addition to flooding, sea level rise degrades coastal ecosystems. The inland advance of seawater has transformed once thriving woodlands into “ghost forests” of leafless branches and fallen trees and can threaten water supplies just inland of this transition zone. Marshes – a vital marine nursery and natural buffer against flooding – are being drowned by rising waters and are often unable to “retreat” inland because of existing development. Coastal farmland exposed to salt water is less productive. And shoreline erosion scours beaches, one of the Garden State’s most lucrative tourist attractions.

East Point Lighthouse
Mad Horse WMA, Delaware Bayshore

Erosion threatens the historic East Point Lighthouse on the Delaware Bayshore (left). Coastal marshes tend to “retreat” inland as sea level rises but are blocked by existing development in many places along the densely populated New Jersey coast (right). 

While major storms like Hurricane Sandy have increased awareness of climate change and sea level rise, there is still a need to educate coastal decision-makers and the general public about flood risks, disaster preparedness, and climate adaptation. Resilience planning is essential at both the state and local levels and must address the needs of all residents, including the most vulnerable, who are likely to suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change. Providing practical options for planners and practitioners to incorporate science into risk-based decision making is a critical step. The sooner we act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for sea level rise, the lower the risk will be.

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

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