Sea-level rise is causing extremely high water levels to become more frequent. This is a problem because floods often result from extremely high water during a storm. So, the probability of disasters are increasing as the Earth continues to warm. However, researchers did not yet know when to expect a certain increase in flood probability at specific places. That’s because protection levels vary quite a bit around the world (see box below). So, in this study, researchers devised a new method to calculate when we can expect a certain increase in flood probability in a specific area. They then applied this method to nearly 500 places around the world.
The calculations of this study show that in more than a quarter of those places, the estimated probability of flooding will be ten times higher within the next thirty years. Estimates are used because the probability of flooding is not exactly known at all places. The increase is most rapid in central America, southern Europe, South Africa and parts of Asia and Australia. To counteract this increased risk, coastal defenses will have to be adjusted in time. “Generally, this is bad news,” says Tim Hermans, a climate researcher at Utrecht University, “because in some places there is little time left to take adaptive measures.”
Flood probability in Den Helder
A place also included in the calculations is the Dutch province of North Holland. The standard for the coastal defenses near the city of Den Helder is a probability of flooding at a water level that 0,1%. In the year 2116, this water level will occur one hundred times more often on average due to sea-level rise, the new method shows. The probability of flooding near Den Helder therefore becomes much higher. Hermans adds: “We have to take into account that this point could even be reached in the year 2067. This is because uncertainties of the observed water levels and the expected sea level rise are included in the calculations.”
Measures take time
According to the researchers, knowing when a certain increase in flood probability will be reached is very important. Marjolijn Haasnoot, climate adaptation expert at Deltares and Utrecht University: “Planning and realizing new adaptation measures takes time. For example, it took decades to realize the Delta Works after the North Sea Flood of 1953, even though the plans were there already,” she says. “Our new calculations give policymakers insight into how much time is left to realize new measures in different places. That is important information for planning adaptation.”
“Especially in scenarios in which we continue to emit a lot of greenhouse gases, the decline in the degree of coastal protection will accelerate. The time for adaptation will therefore become increasingly shorter,” says Aimée Slangen, climate researcher at NIOZ. That’s why the researchers stress the importance of making flexible adaptation plans and detecting when additional measures may need to be implemented faster timely. When such measures need to be taken exactly also depends on what increases in the probability of flooding policymakers find unacceptable.
Different degrees of protection
The height of dikes and other barriers is often based on to the height of extreme water levels. The lower the probability of the extreme water level the dike can withstand, the higher the degree of protection. In the Netherlands, the standard for the probability of flooding of dikes varies considerably: in most areas on the northern coast and in Zeeland, the lower limit is a probability of flooding of once every 1,000 years, whereas the maximum probability of flooding in place near The Hague and Rotterdam is smaller, namely once every 10,000 to 30,000 years. In areas such as Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and Ameland, on the other hand, the maximum probability is higher. Worldwide, the degree of protection also strongly varies.