Joint projections of US East Coast sea level and storm surge


Future coastal flood risk will be strongly influenced by sea-level rise (SLR) and changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. These two factors are generally considered independently. Here, we assess twenty-first century changes in the coastal hazard for the US East Coast using a flood index (FI) that accounts for changes in flood duration and magnitude driven by SLR and changes in power dissipation index (PDI, an integrated measure of tropical cyclone intensity, frequency and duration). Sea-level rise and PDI are derived from representative concentration pathway (RCP) simulations of 15 atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs). By 2080–2099, projected changes in the FI relative to 1986–2005 are substantial and positively skewed: a 10th–90th percentile range 4–75 times higher for RCP 2.6 and 35–350 times higher for RCP 8.5. High-end FI projections are driven by three AOGCMs that project the largest increases in SLR, PDI and upper ocean temperatures. Changes in PDI are particularly influential if their intra-model correlation with SLR is included, increasing the RCP 8.5 90th percentile FI by a further 25%. Sea-level rise from other, possibly correlated, climate processes (for example, ice sheet and glacier mass changes) will further increase coastal flood risk and should be accounted for in comprehensive assessments.

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Figure 1: Regions of analysis and CMIP5 RCP 8.5 ensemble SST warming projections.
Figure 2: CMIP5 ensemble spread in PDI and SLR.
Figure 3: Ocean warming patterns in the CMIP5 RCP 8.5 ensemble.
Figure 4: Eastern US flood index projections.
Figure 5: Sensitivities to the construction of the flood index.


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C.M.L. is grateful for inspiration from the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the Structures of Coastal Resilience project (, discussions with R. Ponte, C. Piecuch and K. Quinn, and financial support from the Carbon Mitigation Initiative in the Princeton Environmental Institute. The NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory provided data and analysis tools. R.E.K.’s contribution to this project was supported by New Jersey Sea Grant project 6410-0012 (under NOAA grant NA11OAR4310101). G.V. acknowledges financial support from the USACE Institute for Water Resources. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Tables 1 and 2) for producing and making available their model output. The US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support for CMIP and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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C.M.L. designed the research. C.M.L., R.E.K., G.V. and G.A.V. conducted the data analysis. All authors contributed extensively to the paper writing, editing, and revision.

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Correspondence to Christopher M. Little.

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Little, C., Horton, R., Kopp, R. et al. Joint projections of US East Coast sea level and storm surge. Nature Clim Change 5, 1114–1120 (2015).

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