For the last four decades, the United States' coastal population has been growing, and fast. It's expected to continue to grow until at least 2020, and almost certainly after. That means more people exposed to ocean-spawned natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding, and tsunamis, and more people ultimately threatened by the fallout from climate change. As anyone who lived through Hurricane Sandy knows, it means a lot more people who are going to have to brace themselves.
These are the key concerns that fester in your brain as you're perusing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's most recent "State of the Coastal Population" report, which aims to prepare those communities—which are home to 39% of the nation's residents, by the way—both for natural disasters and for a sustainable co-existence with surrounding natural habitats.
The report shows that while the U.S. as a whole grew by an average of 36 people per square mile, coastal populations grew by 125 ppm. It projects that 10 million more people will live on our coasts by 2020. That's reason to be concerned.
For one thing, most scientists agree that climate change is occurring faster than expected—that means sea levels are rising faster than expected, coastal regions are eroding faster than expected, and will soon be flooding more than expected. It means millions of people will be more exposed to harsher storms and severely disruptive events than expected.
And it means it's going to be more expensive—as in, requiring more taxpayer dollars—to protect infrastructure, provide emergency services, and to offer additional health care.
In short, sea levels are rising, the oceans are more violent, and we are moving closer to them.
None of which we're ready for. Much of the nation is still in stark denial about climate change—even those populations who live on the coasts and are most at risk. In North Carolina, for instance, lawmakers went so far as to attempt to remove climate scientists' projections for sea level rise from crucial planning documents.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Sandy, New York is grappling with preemptive flood planning, and recognizing how expensive and divisive such planning can be—one plan was criticized for protecting Manhattan by directing flood surges towards Rockaway and Staten Island.
But these are serious problems, of course. The report also shows that populations are actually densest in those place where they're in the most danger. And they are growing denser still.
More people packed into more cities lining more violent coasts—that is what the near-future looks like, and we are going to have to wake up to it, or start building some major dikes. Or floating cities.