Article | Published:

Joint projections of US East Coast sea level and storm surge

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 11141120 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

C.M.L. is grateful for inspiration from the New York City Panel on Climate Change and the Structures of Coastal Resilience project (http://www.structuresofcoastalresilience.org), 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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Affiliations

  1. Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., Lexington, Massachusetts 02421, USA

    • Christopher M. Little
  2. Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Radley M. Horton
  3. Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Rutgers Energy Institute, and Institute of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences, Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854, USA

    • Robert E. Kopp
  4. Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Michael Oppenheimer
  5. Department of Geosciences, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Michael Oppenheimer
  6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Gabriel A. Vecchi
  7. IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, USA

    • Gabriele Villarini

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Contributions

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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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher M. Little.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2801