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Potential impacts of increased coastal flooding in California due to sea-level rise

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An Erratum to this article was published on 19 January 2012


California is likely to experience increased coastal flooding and erosion caused by sea-level rise over the next century, affecting the state’s population, infrastructure, and environment. As part of a set of studies on climate change impacts to California, this paper analyzes the potential impacts from projected sea-level rise if no actions are taken to protect the coast (a “no-adaptation scenario”), focusing on impacts to the state’s population and infrastructure. Heberger et al. (2009) also covered effects on wetlands, costs of coastal defenses, and social and environmental justice related to sea-level rise. We analyzed the effect of a medium-high greenhouse gas emissions scenario (Special Report on Emissions Scenarios A2 in IPCC 2000) and included updated projections of sea-level rise based on work by Rahmstorf (Science 315(5810): 368, 2007). Under this scenario, sea levels rise by 1.4 m by the year 2100, far exceeding historical observed water level increases. By the end of this century, coastal flooding would, under this scenario, threaten regions that currently are home to approximately 480,000 people and $100 billion worth of property. Among those especially vulnerable are large numbers of low-income people and communities of color. A wide range of critical infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals, schools, emergency facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and power plants will also be at risk. Sea-level rise will inevitably change the character of California’s coast; practices and policies should be put in place to mitigate the potentially costly and life-threatening impacts of sea-level rise.

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Major funds were provided by the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) Program. Additional support came from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the California Ocean Protection Council.

The authors wish to thank the scientists and engineers at Philip Williams and Associates for their analysis on coastal flood and erosion hazards. Thanks to Dr. David L. Revell, Robert Battalio, Jeremy Lowe, Justin Vandever, Brian Spear, and Seungjin Baek.

Thanks also go to Noah Knowles, Dan Cayan, Mary Tyree, and Peter Bromirski, and Reinhard Flick of Scripps Institution of Oceanography for much of the oceanographic data.

We owe thanks to a number of agencies and organizations for sharing data and expertise: Philip Pang at the Army Corps of Engineers, Eric Simmons and Ray Lenaburg at FEMA, Reza Navai, Vahid Nowshiravan, and Barry Padilla at the California Department of Transportation, Jennifer Dare at NOAA, and a number of others.

Finally, we are especially grateful for our reviewers: Michael Hanemann, Arlene Wong, June Gin, and several anonymous reviewers who helped to improve the report on which this paper is based.

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Correspondence to Matthew Heberger.

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An erratum to this article can be found at

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Heberger, M., Cooley, H., Herrera, P. et al. Potential impacts of increased coastal flooding in California due to sea-level rise. Climatic Change 109 (Suppl 1), 229–249 (2011).

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