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Author, Margaret Peloso

Adapting to Rising Sea Levels: Legal Challenges and Opportunities

Adapting to Rising Sea Levels discusses the ways in which the structure of the United States’ legal system shapes adaptation. Written to be accessible to a broad audience, the book provides the necessary background on the science of sea level rise and the basic legal principles that animate decision-making in the coastal zone, including the takings doctrine. The book explores the role of federal flood insurance and disaster relief in shaping adaptation decisions, presents case studies from states, and concludes with a high level overview of some of the unique challenges faced by corporations operating in the coastal zone.

Explore the figures shown in the book by chapter below.

What is Relative Sea Level Rise?

Figure 1
Global Distribution of Tide Gauges

Source: Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS)

Figure 2
Satellite Altimetry

Figure 3
Satellite Altimetry Map of Sea Level Rise Differences

Reproduced with permission of Annual Review of Marine Science, Volume 2 © 2010 by Annual Reviews, http:// www. annual reviews. org

Figure 4
Explanation of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and Sea Surface Height

Thermohaline circulation is the circulation of ocean waters that is driven by differences in temperature and salinity. In the North Atlantic Ocean, the formation of sea ice causes the surrounding water to become colder and saltier, increasing its density. This denser water sinks becoming part of the deep ocean currents that are sometimes referred to as the “ocean conveyor belt.”

Figure 5
Explanation of Impact of North Atlantic Oscillation on Landfalling Hurricanes

The North Atlantic Oscillation (“NAO”) is a large-scale atmospheric circulation feature that is characterized by positive and negative phases based on the location of two pressure centers over the North Atlantic. The NAO, which can vary considerably both seasonally or multi-year time scales impacts storm tracks including those of hurricanes. Positive phases of the NAO will cause hurricanes to track closer to the U.S. East coast, while negative phases will tend to steer hurricanes out to sea.

Source: ©2017 Climatological Consulting Corporation,

Figure 6
Map of Projected Sea Level Rise on the Texas Coast

Figure 7
Map of Projected Sea Level Rise on the North Carolina Coast


Figure 8
Map of Projected Sea Level Rise in San Francisco Bay


Figure 9
Ecological Impacts of Seawalls

In the absence of structures that prevent landward movement (e.g., seawalls, coastal
roads), coastal wetlands and other important habitats will move landward in response to
rising sea levels to maintain their position relative to the water. However, when seawalls or
other hardened structures are built to protect coastal property, they prevent this landward
movement and coastal habitats will ultimately be drowned by rising sea levels.

Figure 10
Erosion, Beach Nourishment and Economic Benefits

Figure 11
Coastal Setbacks

Coastal setbacks are often measured with respect to either the mean high tide line or the
first line of vegetation, allowing them to be dynamic over time.

Figure 12
Spatial and Temporal Correlation of Flood Risks

In a flood, if one house in the neighborhood floods, all of the others will too. This is different from a fire, where if one house burns down others might not.

What Is the “Built Environment”?

When considering resilience of a coastal community to climate changes, there are two different types of resilience to consider: social and ecological. As explained in Chapter 2, social resilience can be enhanced at the expense of ecological resilience (e.g., by building seawalls) or by using natural systems to protect coastal communities (e.g., through wetland restoration and setbacks). In evaluating adaptation options, it can be helpful to distinguish between the systems we are trying to protect. Therefore the “built environment” is a term that is useful to distinguish human development, including homes, roads, and coastal infrastructure, from coastal ecosystems, such as sandy beaches and wetlands.

This distinction is particularly important when considering insurance as an adaptation strategy. Insurance covers physical structures that are part of the built environment and is a mechanism to allow physical structures to be restored to their pre- storm condition. Because insurance does not cover coastal ecosystems, it can facilitate rebuilding at the expense of these systems that would otherwise provide natural hazard protection in future events.


Figure 13
Flood Hazard Mapping

FEMA Flood Risk maps classify communities into zones based on flood risk. In the coastal zone the primary zones are:
Zone A: The 100- year flood plan (1% annual flood risk)
Zone V: The 100- year flood plan with additional hazards from storm waves
Zone VE: The V zone with additional risk from erosion

Flood Risk Information Resources from FEMA

To help property owners understand the flood risks to which they are exposed, FEMA has created an extensive set of resources at its public outreach website, The website provides information on flood risks, flood safety, and the availability of flood insurance policies under the NFIP.

FEMA also maintains the Map Service Center, an official online public resource for flood mapping. Through the Map Service Center’s online tools, property owners can enter their addresses and explore their flood risk.

Figure 14
Key Coastal Boundary Lines

Figure 15
Illinois Central

Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-DIG-det-4a06085

Figure 16
Accretion and Erosion

Figure 17

Figure 18
Grand Central Station, New York

Figure 19
Explanation of the Lucas Properties

Photo of the developed lot taken in 2000. Source: William Fischel, A Photographic Update on Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council: A Photographic Essay, http:// www.dartmouth. edu/ ~wfischel/ lucasupdate.html

Figure 20
Map Showing the Palazzolo Property

Source: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council

Figure 21
Explanation of the Nollan case

Figure 22
Explanation of the Dolan case

Figure 23
The Erosion Control Line

Figure 24
BCDC Sea Level Rise Map

Source: San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission,

Figure 25
Bluff Undercutting Erosion

Figure 26
The Pleasure Point Seawall Under Construction in 2009 and in 2014 

Figure 27
Capitola Sea Cave

Source: Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation

Figure 28
Land’s End

© 2002– 2015 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project,

Figure 29
Scope of BCDC Jurisdiction

Figure 30
South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration

Source: South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project

Figure 31
The Saltworks Site

Click here to view

Figure 32
The North Carolina Coast

Source: http:// pdfcharts/

Figure 33
Littoral Transport

Figure 34
Beach Bulldozing

Source: North Carolina Coastal Federation

Figure 35
Sandbag Placement Along the North Carolina Coast

Source: North Carolina Division of Coastal Management

Figure 36
Terminal Groins

Figure 37
The Riggings Complex

Figure 38
Kure Beach Coastline

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Figure 40
Living Shorelines

Living shorelines focus on using natural littoral landscapes as the border between land and sea. In contrast to seawalls (bottom), the living shoreline will migrate landward as sea levels rise.

Figure 41
Example of Living Shoreline and Setback at River Dunes

Figure 42
Map of Eroding Areas on the Texas Coast

Source: Texas General Land Office, Coastal Erosion Response & Planning Act: A Report to the 84th Texas Legislature (2015), http:// coast/ coastal- management/ forms/ files/ CEPRA- Report-2015.pdf

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Surfsde Beach

Source: Texas General Land Office

Figure 43
Rebuilding a Groin in Front of the Galveston Seawall

Figure 44
Galveston Seawall in 2016

Babe’s Beach in front of the Galveston Seawall in 2016 after beach nourishment. The nourishment project established a beach along this stretch of the seawall for the first time in nearly 20 years. Photo Credit: Ellis Pickett

Figure 45
The Severance Properties

Figure 46
Rebuilding under Section 15.13 of the Beach and Dune Rules

Figure 47
Application of the Doctrine of Avulsion after Severance

Figure 48
Role of Base Flood Elevation and Army Corps Jurisdiction in Shaping Development

John Mecom’s Flamingo Isles

Figure 49

Click here to view

Overview of Harborwalk Showing Infeasibility of Living Shorelines Given the Existing Canal and Lot Structure


Figure 50
Bulkheads at Harborwalk

Figure 51
Coastal Development That Is a Danger to Public Health and Safety

Figure 52
CERCLA Remedies That May Be Subject to Five- Year Reviews

Figure 53
Submergence of an Upland Cap Due to Sea Level Rise