These States Risk Catastrophic Flood Damage by 2050, Climate Scientists Say
Most mortgages take 30 years to pay off, but what happens after that? New research suggests homes in some places may not last much longer than that. On Tuesday, nonprofit science news outlet Climate Central and online housing marketplace Zillow released a report predicting how climate change will affect flood risk across the United States’ 24 coastal states. Compiling Zillow data with other public datasets, the team built an interactive map for users to see their projected watery futures, which all depend on the climate decisions we make as a globe now.
The study defined areas as “risk zones” based on their elevations and annual flood heights, using data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, then adding on another layer of analysis by considering natural barriers or levees for protection. Once these terms were defined, the team added Zillow data, which revealed the financial implications and building trends. To analyze different levels of climate change mitigation, the group consulted peer-reviewed research to incorporate Antarctic ice sheet melt, carbon emission cuts, and sea level rise.
Combined, the data paints a clear but bleak picture: If the people of Earth fail to make a dent in carbon emissions, 2.5 million homes are left in risk zones, adding up to $1.33 trillion, roughly six percent of the US economy. Despite growing awareness of climate change, the real estate market continues to build itself into high-risk zones at a higher rate than low-risk zones, setting homeowners up not only with physical danger, but also massive financial loss.
Here are the states at highest risk, ranked by the number of new homes built in flooding risk zones:
1. New Jersey
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, housing growth in risk zones exploded to three times the amount constructed in safer regions. The fast rate puts a total of 2,682 new homes (homes that were built after 2009 but before 2017) at risk, valued at $2.62 billion. Within the state, risk levels vary — Atlantic County and Ocean County are at higher risk than the rest of the state, with the unfortunately named Ocean City taking top rank overall as the city with the most new homes at risk — 308. In fact, the three US cities with the most new homes in risk zones are all Jersey-based, with Beach Haven West and North Beach Haven ranking second and third in the number of homes at risk.
Climate Central’s Risk Finder predicts that, despite having levees, the Garden State has a 74-percent risk of at least one flood over 5 feet taking place between now and 2050. By 2060, the risk grows to 97 percent.
2. North Carolina
The Tar Heel state has stayed away from extreme rates of construction in high-risk areas compared to other coastal states, but the sheer number of homes at risk, 1,223, worth $531 million, puts the state in second place. When it comes to the number of new homes in risk zones, Dare County, resort haven and site of the Wright brothers’ first flight, falls in the top 10 counties nationally.
Battered by Hurricane Michael in October and Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the peninsula’s high risk should come as no surprise. Although the difference in homes at risk by 2050 doesn’t appear large — moderate carbon emissions would leave 10,000 at risk, while unchecked climate change bumps the number to 11,000 — the gap becomes exponentially larger in the following years. By the end of the century, the difference between unchecked climate change and adhering to the terms of the Paris agreements clocks in at 730,000 more homes in flood-risk zones.
Of the state’s 891 new homes in risk zones, totaling $307 million, Galveston County and Brazoria County have the most residents in flooding risk zones. Despite their high numbers compared to other counties across the US, though, both counties do excel at keeping a low ratio of homes built inside risk zones versus safe zones, which prevents exacerbating the problem in the future. Unfortunately, another Texan city, Corpus Christi, makes up the difference, building in high-risk zones 6.1 times as much as safe zones. Although the state has a lower risk of floods over 5 feet taking place by 2050 (37 percent) than some other states, its high levels of socially vulnerable populations sets up the state for exceptionally difficult recovery, as seen by efforts to bounce back from Hurricane Harvey.
Guilty of building homes in risk zones 2.4 times as frequently as safe zones, the state puts 771 (or $526 million in value) homes at risk by 2050. By 2050, the chances of at least one flood occurring above 5 feet jump to 93 percent.
Climate change may feel like a distant issue, but Climate Central and Zillow’s calculations draw an all-too-clear picture of the future we’re choosing to create in the present.