Tracking Coastal Adaptation: Implementing California’s Innovative Sea Level Rise Planning Database

Sea level rise presents a significant climate change adaptation challenge for California. The state has over 3400 miles of coastline, millions of coastal residents, and an economy dependent on coastal natural resources. Higher sea levels threaten residents, public and private development, critical infrastructure, and natural resources with increased risk of flooding, inundation, storm damage, shoreline erosion, saltwater intrusion, and beach loss.

Although California has long been a worldwide leader in mitigating global climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the state has only recently begun to focus seriously on adaptation actions, which aim to reduce or adjust the adverse impacts of climate change. California’s coastal communities, agencies, and public and private entities are largely in the early stages of planning for and addressing climate-related changes on the coastline.1 Because the coast is an integrated system, and entities throughout the state have similar adaptation needs and challenges, coordination in sea level rise adaptation across sectors, jurisdictions, and scales of governance is not just beneficial but essential. Yet recent reports on sea level rise have cited a lack of integration between the many actors engaged in adaptation in California and consequently have called for improved information-sharing.2

In response, the California Legislature recently enacted one of the state’s first laws designed to advance climate adaptation. A.B. 2516,3 which Governor Brown signed on September 21, 2014, directs the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) and Ocean Protection Council (OPC) to publish information about state and selected local efforts to respond to sea level rise in a publicly accessible online database. The law requires the following entities to submit relevant information to the database biannually: airports and ports in the coastal zone or San Francisco Bay area, investor-owned utilities and publicly owned electric or natural gas utilities in the coastal zone or San Francisco Bay area, regional water quality control boards, and several state entities with relevant jurisdiction (see Box 5 below).4 Notably, municipalities and counties do not fall under the reporting requirements of A.B. 2516.

The CNRA and OPC are currently in the process of developing an implementation strategy for A.B. 2516. A.B. 2516 was not accompanied by an appropriation of funds to support its implementation. With sufficient resources, however, the database has the potential to become one of the most robust sea level rise planning information portals in the country, and an example that other jurisdictions may wish to duplicate.5

Importantly, the law grants the agencies broad discretion to determine which types of sea level rise planning information to include in the database, whom to survey, and how to organize the data. These decisions are not insignificant. Creation of the database offers an opportunity to help establish a coastal adaptation survey and dataset that may be useful not only for state and local planning but also for broader assessment of California’s preparedness for sea level rise. And although mandatory reporting is limited to a discrete list of entities, all public and private actors engaged in coastal climate change adaptation—in California and beyond—stand to gain valuable knowledge and insight from the database. Furthermore, because California’s database is the first of its kind, the agencies’ choices about which information to survey, whom to survey, and how to structure the database have the potential to influence the form and scope of future adaptation databases in other jurisdictions.

This policy brief provides recommendations to the CNRA, OPC, and California Legislature regarding how to harness A.B. 2516 to enhance coastal climate change preparedness in California. The authors and contributors to these recommendations collectively bring expertise in coastal law, climate change adaptation, program evaluation, and survey research. Overall, acknowledging that the CNRA and OPC have limited resources to devote to implementation of A.B. 2516, we urge the agencies to work over the next several years to the best of their capacity toward developing a database that can play an integral role in the development and promotion of coordinated, integrated, and effective state adaptation policy.

Municipal Adaptation to Sea-Level Rise: City of Satellite Beach, Florida

It is now widely accepted global sea level will rise a meter or more by the year 2100, yet prior to this investigation no local government along the east-central Florida coast had begun to seriously address the potential consequences of concomitant erosion and inundation. In the fall of 2009, the City of Satellite Beach (City), Florida, authorized a project designed to: (1) assess municipal vulnerability to rising sea level and (2) initiate the planning process to properly mitigate impacts.

Results indicate about 5% of the City landscape will submerge during the initial +2 ft (0.6 m) rise, with inundation generally restricted to fringing wetlands and finger canal margins proximal to the Banana River. At +4 ft (1.2 m), 25% of the City is submerged including South Patrick Drive, one of two major transportation corridors through the City. Residential areas in the north- (c.f. Pelican Coast) and south-west corners of the City are subject to limited inundation. At an elevation of +6 ft (1.8 m), 52% of the City is underwater including the entire western half centered on South Patrick Drive. Much of the Pelican Coast neighborhood is submerged, as are residential areas located in the southwest portion of the City. The function of “critical assets” (i.e., fire/rescue), designated emergency evacuation routes (i.e., South Patrick Drive), and the gravity driven storm-water system is compromised proportional to the magnitude of rise.

Based primarily upon the City’s hypsographic curve, the “tipping point” towards catastrophic inundation is +2 ft (0.6 m), forecast to occur around 2050. Thus, the City has about 40 years to formulate and implement a mitigation plan. The City appears likely to respond through adaptive management. This is an on-going and iterative process that specifies one or more essential actions necessary to reduce the vulnerability to rising seas. As an initial step, the Comprehensive Planning Advisory Board, a volunteer citizen committee serving as the City’s local planning authority, has approved a series of updates and revisions to the City’s Comprehensive Plan. If approved by the City Council, the amendments will provide a legal basis for implementing an adaptive management plan and specific actions designed to mitigate the City’s vulnerability to sea-level rise.

How Countries, States, and Florida Address Sea Level Rise: A Compendium of Climate Adaptation Research

This report by the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition details how climate change could impact the state's coastal areas, and it broadly outlines possible adaptation solutions. It is intended to provide guidelines for concrete, science-based action on the critical issues Florida faces in light of climate change and to stimulate informed debate for the preservation of Florida's natural resources.

Four primary categories of impacts are discussed: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, higher ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification. The potential effects of sea-level rise are fully described, including beach erosion, saltwater intrusion, and the submersion of marshes and coastal property. Discussions of extreme weather events include severity, altering water flows, exacerbating runoff, and damaging coastal habitats. For each of the four impact areas, recommendations are outlined for state and local government responses, including specific agency actions, as well as regional and federal responses.

The Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition is a group of environmental organizations working together to conserve, protect and restore Florida’s coastal and marine environment. Member organizations include the following: Caribbean Conservation Corporation, Environmental Defense Fund, Gulf Restoration Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Ocean Conservancy, Reef Relief, and the Surfrider Foundation.

Coastal Flood Damage and Adaptation Costs Under 21st Century Sea-Level Rise

Coastal flood damage and adaptation costs under 21st century sea-level rise are assessed on a global scale taking into account a wide range of uncertainties in continental topography data, population data, protection strategies, socioeconomic development and sea-level rise. Uncertainty in global mean and regional sea level was derived from four different climate models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5, each combined with three land-ice scenarios based on the published range of contributions from ice sheets and glaciers. Without adaptation, 0.2–4.6% of global population is expected to be flooded annually in 2100 under 25–123 cm of global mean sea-level rise, with expected annual losses of 0.3–9.3% of global gross domestic product. Damages of this magnitude are very unlikely to be tolerated by society and adaptation will be widespread. The global costs of protecting the coast with dikes are significant with annual investment and maintenance costs of US$ 12–71 billion in 2100, but much smaller than the global cost of avoided damages even without accounting for indirect costs of damage to regional production supply. Flood damages by the end of this century are much more sensitive to the applied protection strategy than to variations in climate and socioeconomic scenarios as well as in physical data sources (topography and climate model). Our results emphasize the central role of long-term coastal adaptation strategies. These should also take into account that protecting large parts of the developed coast increases the risk of catastrophic consequences in the case of defense failure.

MTA Adaptations to Climate Change A Categorical Imperative

For organizations to survive, flourish and deliver public services, they must adapt to changing conditions and demands. Climate change is such a demand. Already it has impacted MTA facilities and operations, and will do more so during this century and beyond. The climate-induced change of the physical environment necessitates that MTA find an effective way to adapt its infrastructure, operations, and policies. This chapter provides a risk-based framework for adaptations to climate change. A risk-based, systematic approach to adaptation is important now because of the long lifetimes of urban infrastructure, long planning horizons, and the significant social, economic, and environmental risks faced by urban coastal areas already. New Orleans and hurricane Katrina are an extreme case in a special location far from the MTA service area, but they can serve as a wake-up call: lack of preventive action in the face of known threats can lead to unacceptable losses and outcomes. But not just such extreme events need attention. More frequent seemingly lesser events cause considerable disruptions and losses, as demonstrated by the modest storm of Aug 8, 2007 (MTA 2007). It severely disrupted much of the region’s mass transit. In addition, MTA facilities face a long-term threat from rising sea levels and higher storm surges.

Adaptation measures fall into different categories, and may follow distinct timelines and decision paths: first, a general adaptation policy needs to be adopted to guide the MTA leadership and MTA agencies in their adaptation efforts. It should include the mandate to develop a set of general performance standards for its facilities and operations vis-à-vis climate change; the implementation of these policies will require, in turn, agency-wide vulnerability assessments of the MTA’s physical assets and operations; an engineering- based feasibility assessment of remediation options with estimates of the economic, environmental, and social costs and benefits associated with the various risk reduction measures; MTA actions may require extensive cooperation and integration with other stakeholders, agencies, governments, communities and planning organizations.

These emerging adaptation plans will need to be fully integrated into the fiscal planning process, including preparation of long-range capital spending plans. The planning process will need to develop solutions for different time horizons: a short- term horizon for the next decade or less; a mid-range horizon of several decades; and a long-range preview on the order of a century or even longer. Such long time horizons typically apply to long-lasting infrastructure (e.g. bridges, tunnels, rights-of-way). On these longer time scales some climate-change-related threats (e.g. sea level rise and related storm surge inundations) could become severe and may require much more broadly based (regional, multi-agency) land-use and urban planning solutions than the shorter time horizon’s tasks demand. The National Academies (2008) have issued a report that outlines a framework for climate change adaptation specifically aimed at the transportation sector. It provides valuable information and generic guidance.

Some major regional adaptation measures (e.g. whether to consider regional storm barrier systems or not) constitute substantial policy issues that will require full coordination and joint actions with many levels of government and with stakeholders in the public and private sector, since larger and very fundamental social, economic and environmental issues related to land-use, urban planning and sustainability of entire communities and their livelihoods are at stake, if not those of the entire City and metropolitan region.

Climate risks to coastal urban areas largely stem from temperature rise, changes in precipitation, and sea level rise (SLR) and consequent higher storm surges. They manifest themselves by the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme events including heat waves, droughts, river and street flooding, and storm- and sea-level-rise-induced coastal flooding. Some of the MTA systems are more vulnerable than others: low-lying fixed structures such as below-sea-level road- or subway-tunnels, or near-sea-level railroad tracks, rail yards and shops are more prone to coastal and urban street flooding than bus routes that can be readily rerouted on short notice according to flood conditions.

In planning for adaptation, it is important to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” approach. For given expectations about climate change, different adaptations are appropriate for different types of facilities and their different life spans or criticalities. Rail yards, for example, may need hard protection against rising sea levels and storm surges, whereas other facilities, such as recreation areas, open space, and parking lots, can be allowed to flood temporarily at acceptable frequencies. A facility that will last for 20 years may not require significant adaptation now, whereas a substantial transportation facility with a lifetime of 100+ years and tied to a given right of way will require important adaptation elements with a well planned schedule. The timing of adaptations will differ according to rehabilitation and replacement cycles in addition to magnitude of risk exposure as, in general, adaptations to climate hazards are less expensive when undertaken as part of otherwise needed rehabilitation, replacement, or expansions.

The most challenging decisions may be those where MTA programs are tied to landuse-, community-, urban and regional planning that at some point in time may require the abandonment of land, real estate, or rights of way used for generations, or may need radical and expensive measures to raise or otherwise protect the infrastructure and/or communities from the risk of rising waters. As the last resort, options may include relocation and may require new rights-of-way at safer elevations.

This Adaptation Chapter expands on these general ideas as they apply to MTA facilities, operations, capital planning procedures, and related policies.

Addressing Climate Change Adaptation in Regional Transportation Plans A Guide for California MPOs and RTPAs

The reality of a changing climate means that transportation and planning agencies need to understand the potential effects of changes in storm activity, sea levels, temperature, and precipitation patterns; and develop strategies to ensure the continuing robustness and resilience of transportation infrastructure and services. This is a relatively new challenge for California’s MPOs and RTPAs – adding yet one more consideration to an already complex and multifaceted planning process. In that light, this guide is intended to support planning agencies in incorporating the risks of climate change impacts into their existing decision-making, complementing the broader planning and investment processes that MPOs and RTPAs already manage.

This guide was designed to account for the varying capacities and resources among MPOs and RTPAs, featuring methods that can be used by organizations seeking to conduct a more sketch-level assessment of the risk and vulnerability of the regional transportation assets to climate impacts, or in-depth analysis that incorporates separate stakeholder processes and geospatial analyses. It is oriented to provide information for two types of audiences.

  • A Basic User, a MPO or RTPA conducting climate impact assessments and/or climate vulnerability and risk assessments for the very first time. This pathway is appropriate for agencies with limited resources and GIS capability.
  • An Advanced User, a MPO or RTPA that has experience with climate impact assessments, has strong interagency partnerships with universities, natural resources agencies or public works departments and have more staff resources and technical tools to dedicate to the effort.

For both of these user types, this guide is a resource to help MPOs and RTPAs to: 

  • Assess the relative risks to their transportation system infrastructure and services of different climate stressors (sea-level rise, temperature changes, precipitation changes, extreme weather events); 
  • Conduct an asset inventory and vulnerability assessment of existing infrastructure;
  • Incorporate climate impact considerations into future long-range transportation planning and investment decisions.

Currently, there is no requirement to date to incorporate climate adaptation into regional transportation planning. Nevertheless, this guide provides information and tools to help MPOs/RTPAs anticipate the incorporation of climate assessment and adaptation into future planning efforts.

FY 2013 Federal Agency Climate Change Adaptation Plans: Summary of Research and Information Needs

In June 2013, President Obama announced his comprehensive plan for steady, responsible action to cut carbon pollution, prepare the Nation for the impacts of climate change, and lead international efforts to address climate change as a global challenge. The Plan builds on significant progress made during the Administration’s first term on all of these fronts, including those based on the ongoing scientific work of USGCRP’s 13 member-agencies, the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force in which USGCRP participates, and USGCRP’s National Climate Assessment team (see Box 1).5 The President’s plan contains a full section on the critical need to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate that are already being felt across the country, including by “ensuring that Federal operations and facilities continue to protect and serve citizens in a changing climate.”

In addition to its impacts on communities, public health, businesses, ecosystems, and a range of economic sectors, climate change poses an array of potential challenges and opportunities for Federal Government operations, programs, services, and assets.6 Abrupt and gradual climaterelated changes in sea level, permafrost thawing, extreme precipitation, intense heat waves, sea ice melt, ocean acidification, water scarcity, and an increase in the frequency and severity of climate change-influenced natural disasters are among the risks that the Federal Government needs to consider in order to continue meeting its missions for the Nation in future. Given the impacts the Nation is already experiencing, and the projected changes in climate; we now face the reality mitigation measures alone will not minimize the Nation’s risks to changes in the climate; we must also prepare for and respond to these changes in the climate. Climate change adaptation is a critical step towards ensuring the resilience of the Nation’s built infrastructure, natural resources, and human populations.

In June 2012, the Federal Government took a major step forward by requiring, for the first time, that individual agencies produce Climate Change Adaptation Plans. Under the implementation guidance of Executive Order 13514 – Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, each Federal agency was required to include a climate change adaptation and action plan as an appendix to its annual Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan. In these plans, agencies were asked to: (1) develop a high-level vulnerability analysis; (2) identify appropriate adaptation actions; and (3) develop an implementation plan for fiscal year 2013 (FY13). The plans were intended to help agencies identify actions to reduce and manage the harmful effects climate change and take advantage of new opportunities that climate change may bring, primarily as related to agency missions.7 Agencies consulted a number of resources as they compiled adaptation plans, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was cited uniformly as one of the best resources for climate science and climate change information to support the development of agency adaptation plans and actions.

Following submission of the FY13 Agency Climate Change Adaptation Plans, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) reviewed each plan (June 2012 – January 2013) and then released the plans to the public8 (February 2013), beginning a 60-day public comment period that ended in April 2013. The agencies are now focused on implementing the actions they put forth in their plans, and preparing to update their Adaptation Plans in future years.

Flooded Bus Barns and Buckled Rails: Public Transportation and Climate Change Adaptation

The objective of this project is to provide transit professionals with information and analysis relevant to adapting U.S. public transportation assets and services to climate change impacts. Climate impacts such as heat waves and flooding will hinder agencies’ ability to achieve goals such as attaining a state of good repair and providing reliability and safety. The report examines anticipated climate impacts on U.S. transit and current climate change adaptation efforts by domestic and foreign transit agencies. It further examines the availability of vulnerability assessment, risk management, and adaptation planning tools as well as their applicability to public transportation agencies. The report provides examples of adaptation strategies and discusses how transit agencies might incorporate climate change adaptation into their organizational structures and existing activities such as asset management systems, planning, and emergency response. By focusing specifically on public transportation, and the unique assets, circumstances, and operations of that mode, the report supplements transportation sector wide studies whose scopes did not allow for more in-depth treatment of transit.

Beyond Unintended Consequences: Adaptation for Gulf Coast Resiliency and Sustainability

The Gulf Coast faces a constant storm. Man’s efforts to tame the Mississippi River with flood control structures have led to many unintended consequences, primarily the degradation of the Mississippi River Delta. Throughout the Gulf Region, land loss caused by subsidence, sea-level rise, and the alteration of critical environmental processes has stripped the Gulf Coast of its natural defenses and is accelerating the collapse of coastal ecosystems.

A decade of catastrophic events marked by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have further devastated one of the most fragile landscapes on the planet. Such incidents have highlighted the region’s significance and its vulnerabilities, yet complacency and a false sense of security have returned. Disasters that should have sparked a reckoning instead produced only minor reforms, and so the status quo has become yet another force battering the Gulf Coast.

The deterioration of America’s WETLAND and key assets of America’s Energy Coast is jeopardizing the tremendous benefits provided by a healthy Gulf Coast to the nation. Yet, even as awareness of the Gulf’s importance grows, this recognition faces a policy and regulatory reality that responds to consequences but does not work to achieve real sustainability. Comprehensive solutions must be implemented or the region’s irreplaceable resources will be lost in a matter of decades. Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Ike, Gustav, Isaac: the next big storm is always here.

There is a movement afoot, however, to face reality and adapt to change. This empowerment comes in the form of community efforts, comprehensive state plans for coastal restoration and protection, public/private partnerships, and self-taxation to provide emergency funding for projects that cannot abide an onerous and expensive federal process.

Consider the unfortunate example of Louisiana, where the costly practice of waiting for disaster to strike has exacted an astronomical post-Katrina toll — just to bring coastal communities back to pre-storm conditions. The $140 billion in estimated recovery costs makes earlier projections of $14 billion for coastal restoration seem like a bargain today. To protect national, state and local assets now, a minimum of $50 billion is required to save the coast in Louisiana alone. The price tag may seem high, but will we again make a tragic miscalculation and wait until the damage is done?

This report reflects a combination of grassroots experience and scientific research. Eleven forums were held over 14 months across five states seeking answers to how a faltering coastal landscape can be made more resilient in an age of mounting challenges. Some of the recommendations are common sense. Others will require a push from Washington to move past years of failed practices and outdated, conflicting federal processes that too often slow or stop real restoration.

Gulf Coast communities have welcomed self-inspection, criticism and the resolution of historical differences because they must. This has not been a perfect process, but it has been effective, and it demands action.

Blue Ribbon Resilient Communities across the Gulf are working to stop merely reacting to unintended consequences. The goal is to anticipate, to prepare and, most of all, to adapt. Join us as we move swiftly to prevail against the constant storm.



United States
41° 34' 48.342" N, 71° 28' 38.7444" W
Rhode Island US
Tool Overview: 

STORMTOOLS shows coastal inundation projections from storm surge inundation and sea level rise. STORMTOOLS is a method to map storm inundation, with and without sea level rise, for varying return period storms that covers all of Rhode Island’s coastal waters.