High tides, storm surges, and waves. (Oh my.)

By Andrew Nusca
July 8, 2017

Storm surges are responsible for billions of dollars of damage to coastal areas each year.

According to researchers, it could get worse.

A new study published in Nature Communications on Friday outlines improved modeling techniques for so-called “extreme sea levels,” a phenomenon that has proven challenging for researchers to predict.

How will sea levels change in the future? How might that impact high tides and waves? Given those conditions, what impact could a storm surge have on a coastal community? With newly available data and more sophisticated models, an international team of researchers says it can better answer those questions.

Their findings suggest that extreme sea levels are likely to occur more frequently than researchers have previously predicted, particularly on the west coast of the Americas and in parts of Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Australia, and East Asia. “At many sites what is currently a 100-year event will statistically occur at least once per year in 2050,” the researchers write.

That adjustment has major implications for the municipalities in those areas.

“Up to 310 million people residing in low elevation coastal zones are already directly or indirectly vulnerable to ESL”—as in extreme sea levels—”and coastal storms are causing damages in the order of tens of billion of dollars per year,” the researchers write. “These numbers could increase dramatically with SLR”—that’s sea level rise—and other changes, leading to annual damages of up to almost 10% of the global gross domestic product in 2100 if no adaptation measures are taken.”

The silver lining? Knowledge is half the battle. As researchers continually refine their methods to reduce uncertainty, we’ll have a better sense of what’s to come, and where—and crucially, how to build the infrastructure to accommodate it.

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