As rising sea levels increasingly threaten coastal regions, there are a number of technical and policy solutions that can reduce the vulnerability of the built environment, including managed realignment and the construction of coastal defense structures. However, adaptation to sea level rise will be constrained not only by the realm of what is technically possible from an engineering perspective but also by how these solutions are understood and received by key decision makers and the general public.

This paper examines proposed applications of costal engineering as a potential tool to promote adaptation to sea level rise. Drawing upon examples from California, North Carolina, and Texas, this paper examines how the political dynamics of climate change adaptation, public perceptions of natural hazard risk exposure, and private property interests influence the range of available adaptation responses.

Overall, this paper concludes that the legal and policy dynamics surrounding decisions to adapt to sea level rise can be far more significant than the technical ability to adapt. Therefore, the ultimate ability to adapt to sea level rise and reduce coastal vulnerability will depend upon the ability of the technical and policy communities to collaborate to understand the range of feasible, acceptable solutions.

This paper attempts to bridge the divide between the technical and the policy communities to understand what is necessary to facilitate efficient adaptation. A full understanding of the range of technically available options that are politically viable is essential to promoting adaptation to sea level rise that is able to preserve both the natural and built environments.


Global sea level rise presents significant challenges to coastal populations. According to the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, global sea levels could rise as much as 0.6 meters by 2100. (IPCC 2007). More recent studies suggest that this IPCC estimate is too low and that global sea level rise by 2100 may be as much as 2 meters. (Vermeer & Rhamstorf 2009). Major impacts of sea level rise on coastal populations include gradual inundation of lands and salt water intrusion into groundwater tables. In addition, climate change is projected to result in increased storminess, which when combined with rising sea levels, has the potential to cause more frequent and severe storm surges.

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