What We’re Learning: What Effects Are Rising Sea Levels Having on New Jersey?

A flooded street in The Heights Section of Jersey City.

A flooded street in The Heights Section of Jersey City.

Sea-level rise and coastal flooding are two threats challenging New Jersey’s economic and cultural prosperity.

That was an eye-opening takeaway from the hard-hitting keynote at Sustainable Jersey’s New Jersey Sustainability Summit delivered by Benjamin Strauss, vice president of Sea Level and Climate Impacts at Climate Central.

The challenges created by rising ocean temperatures, melting ice sheets and melting small mountain glaciers put New Jersey residents at risk. Scientists estimate a sea-level increase of 2 to 3 feet per century, according to Strauss. Since 1950, scientists have recorded 9,726 floods in the United States and determined that an overwhelming majority — 67 percent — were caused by humans.

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When you think of extreme weather occurrences, you probably think of hurricanes and tropical storms, which cause severe flooding that destroy property, damage natural habitats and sometimes claim lives. Here in New Jersey, where Hurricane Sandy is fresh on our minds, we know that too well.

But just as dangerous, Strauss said, are nuisance flooding events that occur at low tide and during normal rainfall. The nuisance flooding causes damage to homes, roads and major transportation corridors on a regular basis. Take, for example, Atlantic City, which experienced more than 150 days of  human-attributed nuisance floods between 2005-14.

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Can you imagine what the enormity of the inconveniences suffered by our coastal communities and densely populated cities amounts to because of these preventable occurences?

New Jersey’s coast is highly developed, meaning millions of people and property are vulnerable to the rapidly changing environment.  To help municipal officials, residents and policymakers understand what kind of vulnerabilities their community might face Climate Central developed, Risk Finder. It is an online tool with easily accessible, science-based, local information to help you understand and respond to the risks of sea level rise and coastal flooding.

In addition to the the possible property damage, consider the many contaminated sites throughout the state that are susceptible to flooding.

Last fall, the Toxic NJ reporting series highlighted that there were 15,000 active or pending contaminated sites and 114 are Superfund sites – considered the most severely polluted.

As a result of New Jersey’s industrial past, low-income urban areas such as Newark’s Ironbound, Camden, Trenton and Paterson are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and pollution. In a report produced by the American Journal of Public Health it was determined that minority and low-income communities had disproportionately higher levels of exposure to environmental stressors compared with those for the general population. Within those communities, sites could be located near a waterway, school or public open space thus putting the health and environment of numerous residents at risk. A number of our grantees are working in these areas to address these environmental justice issues. For example, the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) worked with the Clean Water Fund and NJ Environmental Justice Alliance to create the Newark Resiliency Action Plan. The plan focused on five community-identified priorities: reducing toxic flooding, mitigating air pollution, creating energy efficiency and alternative energy programs, preparing for and responding to extreme weather events, and addressing the urban heat island effect. The Camden SMART team and their partners have focused on managing storm water through the installation of green infrastructure solutions. One type of solution has been the installation of rain gardens that are designed to capture, treat, and infiltrate over 800,000 gallons of storm water each year.

Although I have given you many dismal facts to absorb, there are encouraging changes taking place throughout the state. In an afternoon session about health, equity and environmental justice, Janet Curries of the Center for Health and Wellbeing noted that pollution has been decreasing over time and inequalities in health outcomes are also falling and have the greatest impact on children from disadvantaged households. And to hear that information as a grantmaker, it was reassuring. I now have a better understanding of how each grantee’s approach to address climate change, flooding and environmental toxicity are changing communities throughout New Jersey for the better.


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Naeema Campbell is a program associate for the Environment and Informed Communities programs at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Look for more lessons Dodge staff are learning as they visit with nonprofits throughout the state right here on the Dodge Blog.

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