Report a call to action about sea-level rise in Texas

March 12, 2013

By Jim Hiney

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Sea-level rise is not the type of looming coastal natural hazard that announces itself with the roaring bravado of a hurricane, but it is there, in the details of the storm, and will only get worse in the absence of public sentiment to address the issue, says one of the state’s leading coastal development experts.

“It is in the extreme events where people will be noticing the effects most in the short term,” says Dr. John Jacob, Extension Program Director with the Texas Sea Grant College Program at Texas A&M University. “Hurricane storm surge will be much more significant. A half-foot increase in storm surge elevation can mean tens to hundreds of square miles of additional flooding. Storm tides will be reaching farther inland flooding areas that have not been flooded before. In the longer run, what is today's storm tide will be tomorrow's high tide.”

Sea level along the Texas Gulf Coast is rising by a fraction of an inch each year, but this increase is expected to accelerate and possibly inundate one of the state’s most profitable and environmentally diverse regions. As a first step in addressing the problem at the state level, The University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology and Energy Institute recently released a report from a workshop it held last year at the university’s Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas to identify the current status of sea level rise along the Texas Gulf Coast and to assess risks to the region’s ecosystems, communities and economy.

The Risk of Rising Sea Level: Texas Universities Ready and Able to Help Coastal Communities Adaptpresents the findings of the workshop’s 28 participating scientists from six of Texas’ leading academic institutions, including Texas Sea Grant, along with representatives from the nonprofit, governmental and private sectors.

The report is available online at

 “Our intention with this white paper is to be educational,” says Dr. Wendy Gordon, founder and principal of Ecologia Consulting in Austin, who was hired by The University of Texas to organize the workshop and summarize its finding in a report. “We want to initiate a dialog among interested parties and these parties should span the entire state because the coast is important to all Texans. We want to raise the awareness about and profile of the issue, and hopefully build public support for more dollars being appropriated for sea level rise research and adaptation.”

Sea-level rise is not a “someday” event. It is already a fact of life in Texas. Current data show coastal water levels are rising about one-fifth of an inch per year, which is about five times the rate seen during the previous 4,000 years and one of the highest rates reported globally, according to the report. It goes on to state that the current rate of sea-level rise in Texas is expected to accelerate further, doubling or even tripling by the end of the 21st century as a warming atmosphere fuels further expansion of the oceans and threatens to melt significant portions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

By 2100, much of the Texas coast will most likely be under at least a foot of water and as much as six feet of water.

“We stand to lose a very large amount of one of our most productive environments in all of Texas — the coastal salt marsh,” Jacob says. “All of our significant fisheries depend in one way or another on this environment. As sea level rises, marshes can migrate inland if the land is available, but there are many places on the coast lined with sharp rises or bluffs. In these areas marshes will drown as water rises. Much of the remaining areas are becoming urbanized with shoreline protection that will also hinder marsh migration.”

The rising Gulf of Mexico will directly impact Texas’ 18 coastal counties that account for less than 6 percent of the state’s landmass but are home to almost a quarter of its 2010 population. According to the report, Texas’ coastal population is growing more than twice as fast as the rest of the state.

“As we just saw with Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, one of the outcomes of what was a pretty unusual confluence of weather events was a storm surge that was made worse by a century’s worth of sea-level rise,” Gordon says. “People living up and down the Texas coast and also living inland in low-lying regions are looking not only at incremental sea-level rise but also the fact that 10, 20 and 30 years hence, hurricanes that come ashore are going to push the tide even further inland. That becomes a risk to businesses, property owners, residents, and communities all along the coast and in turn it then becomes an economic risk throughout the state.”

The coastal zone is one of the state’s primary economic engines, fueled by oil and gas production and petrochemical refining operations, four of the country’s 10 busiest ports and the considerable infrastructure needed to keep these enterprises running. Texas ports generate about $5 billion in local and state tax revenues and $48 billion in personal income. They also create 1 million direct jobs and 1.3 million indirect jobs annually, The Risk of Rising Sea Level states.

The report goes on to cite a recent study by Entergy, a power-generating utility based in Louisiana that serves East Texas, which estimated that the current value of Gulf Coast energy assets is $800 billion.

“As people understand the issues here, we will see more consensus around the need to conduct additional studies and to start developing adaptation strategies,” Gordon says. “This is a long-term issue. We’re trying to get it in front of people now while we still have time to start responding to the threat.”


Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.