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NOAA's new sea level rise guide helps local governments, including Pinellas, plan for the future

A PowerPoint slide graphic broken up in three parts showing storm surge today, 2050 and 2100.
Pinellas County
A Pinellas County sea level rise graphic.

Pinellas County's sustainability and resiliency coordinator said he finds NOAA's application guide helpful as he makes plans for an area that's already experiencing tidal impacts and effects to infrastructure.

Federal officials have created a new guide to help local governments plan for sea level rise.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's application guide is in response to February’s Interagency Sea Level Rise Technical Report that projects waters along the U.S. coast will rise by about a foot by 2050 — that means the next 30 years will see roughly the same amount of sea level rise that was observed over the past 100 years.

Here are some takeaways from the report, highlighted by NOAA:

  • Sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10 - 12 inches in the next three decades, although it will vary regionally.
  • By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.
  • Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5 - 5 feet of rise for a total of 3.5 - 7 feet by the end of this century.
    Graphic of five blue images with gray arrows pointing one after the other: develop full inventory of stressors, determine impacts on county facilities, monetize risks for every asset, develop present value costs, focus investment where most effective.
    Pinellas County
    A PowerPoint slide explaining the risk-based approach for investments.

William Sweet, an oceanographer with NOAA, said the agency’s guide to this information, along with maps it provides, put the science in plain language for community planners so they can apply it to local decision making.

"You could actually use this information and use the maps to get a sense of where that new height might be,” he said. “For existing infrastructure or streets, churches, schools, you name it: what's the risk of flooding now? And how is that likely to change in the future? How's the flood frequencies expected to increase?"

The guide was a consensus of several extension agents that have close connections with people on the ground making decisions, according to Sweet.

"Oftentimes, it's very hard for folks to pick up scientific literature and make sense of it… there needs to be a sort of a doorway that can introduce folks to the science in a very simplistic manner, so that they can make sense of it and not feel intimidated or frozen moving forward," he said.

Pinellas County's sustainability and resiliency coordinator, Hank Hodde, said he finds NOAA's guide helpful as he makes plans for an area that's already experiencing tidal impacts and effects to infrastructure.

"We're developing a sustainability resiliency action plan, and a new county initiative to think about all things sustainability and resiliency, but we have a focus area on resilient infrastructure and another one on thriving communities," he said.

Side-by-side maps showing storm surge conditions currently, in 2040, 2070, 2100.
Pinellas County
PowerPoint slide from Pinellas County.

The county will explore new initiatives for adaptation, mitigation and policy, in order to educate and empower residents and business owners to make informed decisions, according to Hodde.

Here’s what else Pinellas is working on:

  • The county started its own sea level rise and storm surge vulnerability assessment in 2018 that was just completed and provides a lot of projections for both tidal and storm surge inundation, based on three sea level rise scenarios: for the years 2040, 2070 and 2100.
  • They just received $700,000 from the Resilient Florida planning grant to complete phase two of their vulnerability assessment, which will fill some of the gaps of the first study, while considering new legislative and statutory requirements from the state of Florida.
  • Pinellas has its own in-house flood resiliency tool where a project manager can walk through different flooding impacts based on data tied to a local tide gauge.

“This application guide just helps to further ground truth [to] what we're doing at the local level, and provide justification based on this national research and work," he said. "So there's a great tie between what's happening at the federal level and the state level and then how we're applying it locally. And we feel we feel like we're in a good place right now.”

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.