Be prepared: Energy, food and medicine at risk from rising seas, engineers warn

Be prepared: Energy, food and medicine at risk from rising seas, engineers warn

Sea Level Rise measurement on beach
Shutterstock JL-Pfeifer
A tidal marker with a measurement scale measures the depth of the incoming high tide implanted on a coastal beach to record flooding and natural disasters.

Governments around the world urgently must prepare for nearly 4 feet of sea level rise before the end of the century, with creeping tides expected to have drastic impacts on coastal communities and infrastructure, the United Kingdom's leading engineering professional body has warned.

With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise and average temperature records hitting their highest levels in human history, scientists are increasingly observing extensive and more frequent polar ice cap melting, which in turn is leading to rising seas that threatens coastlines.

Tides could rise higher than previously expected and have huge direct impacts on coastal and riverside communities, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) warned in a new report released last week, yet governments, businesses and investors around the world are still vastly ill-prepared for the threat their assets face.

The professional body warns of increasing evidence sea-levels could be set to rise even further and more rapidly than even the most recent worrying predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which estimated in September that under its most likely scenario the world is on track for 33 inches of average sea level rise by 2100.

As such, coastal and waterside communities can expect more regular flooding of homes and businesses as seas rise, on top of indirect consequences for the rest of society when critical infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, and power generation are hit.

Should coastal flooding affect these types of facilities, it would place crucial societal needs including supplies of energy, food, medicines, goods and services at significant risk, IMechE said. It therefore urged preparations to be made for sea level rises of 4 feet this century, as well as contingency plans for up to 12 feet.

However, report author Tim Fox, an IMechE fellow, warned that despite awareness of the worrying potential impacts of sea level rise on infrastructure, homes, and businesses, there remains little evidence owners and operators of infrastructure assets are taking action to adapt and enhance resilience for new projects and existing developments.

"There is emerging evidence that sea levels could rise further and more rapidly than the most recent predictions from the IPCC," he said. "In light of this, it is essential that governments and the engineering profession consider this when designing and implementing national policies and strategies for adaptation to future coastal flooding."

Engineered structures, devices, and systems — particularly larger projects such as bridges, roads and rail lines — often can be in service for between 50 and 100 years, Fox explained, emphasizing the need to build in climate resilience to existing assets and those in development immediately so that they can cope with sea level rise that is deemed all but inevitable.

The report calls for coastal flooding policy and strategies to incorporate the latest emerging climate evidence for expected sea level rise, and be backed by industry task forces working with professional engineering bodies and government departments to better define and develop adaptive approaches to future flooding and rising sea events.

"When we are thinking about projects this important to businesses and communities worldwide and the potential for how sea-levels might change in that time, the pressing case for changing our thinking and our approach becomes clear," he said.

The report comes just days after a new study from banking giant HSBC warned emerging economies could face increased health costs that run to $10 trillion as a result of escalating climate impacts, such as floods, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires.

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