Rising up to the challenge

Tybee Island city council members and officials, with assistance from environmental policy experts at UGA, Georgia Sea Grant and other agencies, are preparing for the consequences of continued sea level rise.

The cooperative arrangement is allowing community assets to be identified that are vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, beach erosion and other concerns related to rising seas. The group will then develop strategies in anticipation of the threats-through appropriate local ordinances, infrastructural improvements and other municipal actions.

The project is a joint effort between the city government, the UGA Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Georgia Sea Grant, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and UGA Marine Extension Service, with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This will be the first time in Georgia that we will have a barrier island community look at sea level rise adaptation,” said Jason Evans, an environmental sustainability analyst in the Vinson Institute’s environmental policy program.

“Tybee’s leaders and residents have an excellent opportunity to understand how their island might be affected by rising waters and higher tides in the future,” he continued. “The project will provide them with tools to make better-informed decisions and investments. We hope that the project will serve as a model for other coastal communities.”

Sea levels at Tybee Island have been on the rise for decades. NOAA has been recording sea levels at nearby Fort Pulaski since 1935 and has documented a rise of approximately 10-11 inches since that time. Oceanographers expect the area to experience at least an additional six inches of sea level rise in the next 50 years.

Higher sea levels translate into greater encroachment along the coast. Assets potentially at risk include the Highway 80 causeway, water utility infrastructure, downtown business district and beachfront. Causeway flooding now happens regularly during extreme high tides. The city has adapted to these spring tide flooding events by retrofitting storm sewers in some neighborhoods.

“It is the responsibility of elected officials to plan for the long-term future of the community they represent and, in doing so, do whatever they can to help future elected officials make intelligent, well-informed choices,” said Tybee Mayor Jason Buelterman. “This study gives us an opportunity to do just that.”

Researchers will use computer-based models to estimate what may happen to the chosen assets depending on sea level rise. They will use a cost-benefit analysis tool called the Coastal Adaptation to Sea Level Rise Tool, or COAST, to estimate dollar value for potential losses and possible remedies. These might include raising roads, building dunes or moving facilities. The project will allow Tybee Island leaders to compare the advantages of different possible actions when making decisions for the future.