Rising seas are destroying homes – rebuild with wood to offset emissions


As the climate warms and sea levels rise, homes and other structures on coastlines are being damaged or destroyed. Rebuilding with wood – whether on the coast or elsewhere – is the single biggest way that the losses could lower carbon emissions, reports a new modeling study by the USDA Forest Service.

Since 1880, the average global sea level has risen by 8-9 inches. Photo by the National Park Service, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Rising sea levels are exposing a larger and larger share of coastal population to increased coastal flooding risk, threatening the lives and properties of coastal residents, and generating far-reaching economic and ecological consequences,” says Prakash Nepal, research economist at the Forest Products Laboratory and lead author of the study.

Across the globe, more than 600 million people live in coastal areas that are less than 10 meters (30 feet) above sea level. As sea level rise continues to damage houses and other structures, it also is creating increased demand for wood products used to build housing for displaced people, according to the new research.

“We integrated multiple models to connect sea level rise, the global forest sector, and a carbon accounting framework,” says Jeff Prestemon, co-author, senior research forester, and forest economist with the Southern Research Station.

The projections imply that across the globe, sea level rise will destroy 70 million homes over the next 30 years. The researchers explored the implications of rebuilding these homes and found that meeting the projected demand could represent a 4% increase in total wood consumption. Forest product prices would also increase, which could motivate countries to increase timber harvest and consume, produce, and trade more forest products. Removing more timber could lead to reduced forest biomass and carbon.

Conversely, price increases could also lead to expansion of forest area, especially where private forest landowners are motivated or additional public investments are made. “The agency can mitigate the carbon losses by stepping up efforts to plant trees and make our forests more productive,” adds Prestemon.

“This first assessment could help policymakers decide on the best course of action to adapt to and mitigate the effects of rising seas and a warming climate,” says Prestemon. “Proactive measures such as planting new forests or facilitating retreat from vulnerable coasts are policies in need of evaluation. Research can contribute to the evaluation of those policies.”

Linda Joyce with the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Kenneth Skog with the Forest Products Laboratory are also co-authors of the study.

Read the journal article in Global Environmental Change.

For more information, email Prakash Nepal at prakash.nepal@usda.gov or Jeff Prestemon at jeffrey.prestemon@usda.gov.

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