Why the New Jersey coasts are at risk from human-caused climate change

The mid-December storm that hit New Jersey brought high water level surges that are becoming normal for this coastal state. Sandy Hook, a Jersey shore barrier peninsula, saw surges 4 feet above average. High tides, surges and flooding are becoming more common in the Garden State due to human-caused climate change, said James Shope, PhD, an applied climatologist at Rutgers University.

“Human-caused climate change itself is driven by increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that causes the world to warm up,” he said. Retained energy in the Earth’s system cause downstream consequences for rainfall, ocean temperature and ocean circulation patterns. Climate change typically makes extreme hazards more frequent or stronger.

The New Jersey coastline is suspectable to disproportionate effects, Shope said. “We’re experiencing sea level rise on our coasts at a faster rate than many other places around the country,” he said, and the mid-Atlantic region is one of the country’s hotspots. It’s made worse by subsiding New Jersey coastal land surface, primarily from processes like natural sediment compaction and land adjustment due to the last ice age’s effects, he said. “Even if we weren’t having human-caused sea level rise, there would still be a natural effect on the New Jersey coast. It would just be slower.”

The state’s sea level rose 18.2 inches since the early 1900s, according to the State of the Climate: New Jersey 2022. Shope was lead author on this report, which projects that by 2100, New Jersey sea levels will be 4.0-6.3 feet above 2000 levels.

Flooding and extreme storms

The state is also experiencing two large scale flooding processes. The first is “sunny day” or “nuisance flooding,” a result of high tide cycles. Atlantic City is a good example, experiencing several high tide cycles several annually. As sea levels rise, it will experience more frequent but low-level flooding, which doesn’t cause major damage, but has potential to cut residents off from roads and services, while causing some physical damage. By 2030, Atlantic City will experience 17 to 75 days of sunny day flooding annually, and 85 to 315 days by 2060, per the report.

Human-caused climate changes will shape how the state experiences extreme events like hurricanes and nor’easters. Storm surges, on top of higher water levels, makes storms during high tides more damaging. “The flooding will be more extensive. You don’t need a hurricane-level Sandy storm,” Shope said, because you’re already starting at a higher baseline.

The obvious solution is to move away from the beach and coast, he said. “But that is not a politically tractable concept in New Jersey,” as the urbanized coast is economically important for residents, tourists and coastal fisheries.