New Jersey’s Coastal Assets Threatened by Global Rise in Sea Level

Jon Hurdle | April 14, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Rate at which ocean is rising has more than tripled over past century, according to records of one NJ historical society

A little over 100 years ago, East Point Lighthouse on South Jersey's Delaware Bay shore was located 460 feet from the high-water mark. Six years ago, distance was measured at 174 feet. Last year, the lighthouse was only 118 feet away from the high-water mark.
East Point Lighthouse stands about 118 feet from the high-tide line on South Jersey’s Delaware Bay shore, but it used to be much further away.

The historic structure at the mouth of the Maurice River was 460 feet from the high-water mark when it was inspected in 1908, according to the Maurice River Historical Society, which has helped to restore the lighthouse, and is keeping a careful eye on its proximity to the ocean. By 2008, the margin shrunk to 174 feet, and then to 118 feet in 2013.

The measurements indicate not only that the ocean is encroaching on this isolated corner of New Jersey’s coastline, but also that the pace of its approach has more than tripled from three feet a year for the first 105 years in which it was monitored to 11 feet a year since 2008.

The shrinking distance between the bay and the lighthouse is just one local sign of global sea-level rise that was highlighted in the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said on March 31 that coastal communities are threatened by rising oceans that are being swollen by melting polar ice caps.

The report warned that coastal floods and other effects of climate change would worsen unless carbon emissions are cut worldwide.

An even more dire report released yesterday by the IPCC found that the global rate of greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2.2 percent annually in the 2000-2010 period, almost double the 1.3 percent yearly increase from 1970-2000, suggesting even more drastic steps need to be taken to avert dangerous climate change.

“Things are going to have to change if we want to control climate change,” said Dr. Leon Clarke, senior research economist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The report says delaying aggressive steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming will only result in more limited, more costly options.

Getting Ready for Next Storm

In the nearby community of East Point, whose single row of 13 houses is built on the very edge of the bay shore, owners continue to repair and rebuild after the devastation of Sandy, and try to prepare for whatever the elements may throw at them in future.

Some have elevated their houses, and others have built up bulkheads but all, it seems, are determined that their dream of a waterfront view won’t be destroyed by fears of more monster storms or seas lapping at their foundations.

“When you get a full moon and a strong tide, the water will hit the bulkhead,” said David Feenan, who recently bought his 720-square-foot house for $55,900 after the previous owner decided that he didn’t want to deal with another Sandy. The value of the house is down from its peak of $289,000, Feenan said.

He has rebuilt a bay-side deck that was washed away in the storm, and has installed a concrete seawall whose top is just two feet above an old wooden bulkhead. During a high tide, the water can rise as far as the top of the bulkhead, he said. He has no plans to rebuild a dock after the storm destroyed all but three of its pilings, which remain semi-submerged a few yards offshore.

With only two feet of extra protection from the bay, Feenan’s house could be exposed to storm surges, and could even be at risk from the general ocean level that’s expected to rise by three feet or more along the Jersey coast by the end of the 21st century.

He won’t be raising the house and doesn’t have flood insurance because he doesn’t have a mortgage so doesn’t have to meet those requirements. And he is not too concerned about predictions of rising seas in coming decades because, at 49, he figures he won’t be around if or when it happens.

“In 30 years, I probably won’t be here, so I’m not too worried,” he told NJ Spotlight.

Feenan, who works part-time for a mortgage company, sold up in Brigantine, where his previous house survived Sandy unscathed, but where he felt hurt by post-Sandy criticism that owners of shore properties should not be putting themselves in harm’s way.

In his new location, where he plans to live year-round, Feenan won’t be seeking a bailout in the event of another mega-storm or ocean inundation.

“I’m not asking the country to pay for me,” he said.

Across the Maurice River to the west, rising sea levels are eating away at other parts of Cumberland County’s coastline, flooding roads, eroding beaches, and killing forests with salt-water inundation.

Despite skepticism from some residents that the flooding is a result of global sea-level rise, the expectation of bigger storms and higher waters in years to come underlies a recent report on how to defend the county’s bay shore.

Along the Atlantic coast, too, communities are facing frequent flooding, and wondering how to respond.

In Little Egg Harbor Township, flooding of streets near the shore has been a more frequent problem since Sandy, said Mike Fromosky, Assistant Township Administrator.

Wind and Tide

He estimated that neighborhoods such as Osborn Island, a community of about 500 residents on the edge of Little Egg Harbor, get water in the streets once a month, and are especially vulnerable when a high tide combines with a northeast wind.

Fromosky said sea-level rise probably contributes, but he suspects that Sandy is mostly to blame for the flooding because of its massive disruption of coastal channels that left back bays such as Little Egg Harbor more exposed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Gene Kobryn, deputy mayor of the township where some 4,000 houses were damaged during Sandy, said sea level is coming up, albeit slowly, and is adding to the challenge of coastal development in areas like Osborn Island.

The island’s residential area, which was built on a lagoon about 50 years ago, needs to be dredged but work has been delayed by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection because of concerns about the environmental effects of dredging, Kobryn said.


Soon, officials will plant a “living shoreline” of grasses and other vegetation along the island’s bay side to test the technique’s effectiveness at protecting it from rising waters and storm surges.

For now, flooding makes travel difficult, and the salt water damages cars in a township whose waterfront properties are typically only about five feet above sea level, Fromosky said.

In a township where only about a third of the 943 “substantially” damaged properties have been raised, rebuilt, or demolished after Sandy, and which is preoccupied with defending itself against the next storm, Fromosky said that looking for ways of achieving that is a full-time job.

“It’s a very big deal,” he said. “Most of my time is spent on resilience efforts.”

The township is awaiting recommendations on resilience measures from the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, a public entity whose “Getting to Resilience” program is due to produce similar reports for around 40 other New Jersey towns. Studies have also begun for Seaside Park, Brick, and Sea Bright, said Lisa Auermuller, a scientist with the organization.

If local evidence of sea-level rise is anecdotal and incremental, the Atlantic City tide gauge provides clear data that waters are rising — at about 5.3 millimeters a year, a faster rate than the 4 millimeters a year during the 20th century.

Rising and Falling

The gauge, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that New Jersey’s rate of sea-level rise is about twice the global average because the state’s coastline is sinking at the same time.

“The local Atlantic City trend is about twice what is believed to be the globally averaged sea-level rise for the 20th century,” said Chris Zervas of NOAA. “This is because the tide gauge measures land subsidence as well as sea-level rise. The land is sinking at about the equivalent rate that sea level was rising in the 20th century.”

Zervas said the current annual rate consists of 3 millimeters of sea-level rise and 2.3 millimeters of land subsidence.

While a few millimeters a year of sea-level rise remains an abstraction to many coastal residents, climate scientists continue to warn that the accumulated effect will cause major disruption in years to come.

Ben Horton, a professor of sea-level change at Rutgers University, said current signs of rising waters, like increased flooding, beach erosion, and retreating coastal marshes will become more pronounced in the future, and will occur even if the world finds ways of making big cuts in carbon emissions.

“If tomorrow, we turned off CO2 emissions completely, we would still be committed to sea-level rise and temperature rise,” he said.

He predicted that New Jersey’s sea level will be about three-and-a-half-feet higher than the current level by the end of the century.

Horton said individuals can reduce their carbon footprints by lifestyle changes such as walking or bicycling rather than driving for short distances, but meaningful reductions can only be achieved by governments, which must lead a broad-based effort to curb carbon emissions, he said.

Cutting emissions could help reduce the likelihood of megastorms that would be more frequent or even more destructive than Sandy, he said.

“Those events could be greater than anything we have seen,” he said.

Tom Johnson contributed to this story.