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Experts: Sea level rising in Coastal Georgia

Several studies on the rising sea level in Coastal Georgia have been conducted over the past decade, with each report coming to similar conclusions. Occasional local flooding problems today may become major environmental and economic issues in just 15 years.
One report, called “Encroaching Tide,” was released Oct. 1 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. That report noted that Savannah, which sits 42 feet above sea level, and Tybee Island, which is only 10 feet above sea level, already have major flooding problems during heaving rains and storms at least 10 times a year. The report said 40 years ago, such flooding occurred only five times a year.
The tide report also studied flooding in Brunswick, which is 55 feet above sea level. Researchers said that by 2100 as much as 8 percent of dry, undeveloped land in Glynn County could be lost to higher sea levels. Some streets in Brunswick could be washed away by that time, the report said.
The Georgia Institute of Technology, in partnership with the Georgia Conservancy, completed its own study two years ago called “Tracking the Effects of Sea Level Rise in Georgia’s Coastal Communities.” Dr. Larry Keating and doctoral candidate Dana Habeeb headed the study.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Habeeb said regarding the 3 millimeters a year the study found sea levels have risen since studies began 75 years ago. “That gives stakeholders and communities time to prepare and make changes.”
Habeeb, who’s working on her doctorate in climate studies, said sea levels began rising around the time of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the early 19th century. According to the effects study she helped lead, climate scientists have projected that sea levels will rise by 1 meter in 100 years.
“We weren’t trying to prove the 1-meter-rise-in-100-years figure,” she said. “We took it as a given fact. … There’s a strong correlation between the increase in (global) temperature and sea level rise.”
She said the effects of sea-level rise along Georgia’s coast will not be as evident as it will be in neighboring states where industrial, commercial and residential development is greater.
Georgia Conservancy Coastal Director Clay Mobley agrees. He said even though there isn’t great concern for immediate changes to Liberty County’s coastal communities, it’s something to start thinking about now. Communities will need to plan and prepare for the effects of sea level rise, he said.
“We’re especially concerned about Colonels Island, Yellow Bluff and St. Catherines Island,” Mobley said. “Those areas are very important. It’s something to consider for the people who live there as well as the wildlife there if sea level rises.”
Mobley and Habeeb said the effects on wildlife will be minimal as most animals have the ability to move or migrate inland as sea levels rise. Increasing levels, however, can have a negative impact on coastal marshes, they said. Marshes and wetlands provide food and habitat for shellfish as well as juvenile fish, and serve as shelter and nesting sites for migratory birds.
Habeeb thinks higher sea levels may be a cause for greater erosion and accretion rates along the coast, particularly as part of storm surges. Mobley said officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Resources Division have noted shoreline change rates for Liberty County demonstrate a projected sea-level rise for the county.
Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission Executive Director Jeff Ricketson said concerns about a rising sea level have been around a while. He said even Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield officials have expressed concerns about sea-level rise.
“Sea-level rise in Georgia, although gradual, has been increasingly catching the attention of academic groups from both the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech in recent years,” Ricketson said. “As part of the LCPC’s ongoing comprehensive-plan update for Liberty County, we will address sea-level rise and its impact for the first time.
“I don’t believe that significant properties in Liberty County are in imminent danger, but I believe that the time has come to address the issue of sea-level rise and the associated risks of coastal flooding,” he added. “This will require sound land-use policies and an extensive public-awareness campaign.”

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