Preparing for Climate Change in the Southeast: Interview with Coastal Hazards Specialist Jennifer Kline

A wooden walkway stretching out over a marsh in St. Marys, Georgia. 

If you, like me, have lived most of your life west of the Mississippi you may have found yourself baffled by what seems to be a dangerous combination of vulnerability and political apathy regarding sea level rise in southern states like Georgia. 

Well after five months of living in the Southeast I’m happy to report that we’ve been falsely judging the book by its cover! Behind the political climate-denier bluster that makes headlines one can find some very smart and dedicated Southerners who are doing their best to prepare their region for climate change impacts. Zion and I were lucky enough to sit down with one of these individuals, Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Hazards Specialist Jennifer Kline, to discuss climate change impacts and adaptation.

Communication

Jennifer’s goal is for coastal counties to be prepared for the larger storms, rising seas, and worsening droughts projected as the atmosphere warms. When her department first began to consider climate change nine years ago, they tried forming specific climate change adaptation plans for each county. Due to the aforementioned acceptance by some Georgians of rhetoric that denies climate change, these plans were quickly rejected. Jennifer and her colleagues were not deterred and began instead to incorporate their adaptation plans into hazard mitigation plans that already existed. They also use the term “long-term hazards” in place of “climate change” to help make the plans less overtly controversial. 

Today things are a little easier thanks to the obvious increase in tidal flooding in coastal areas. “Residents accept that the sea is rising” said Jennifer, “because they can see it for themselves.” One dramatic example took place this fall when a king tide event left the only road connecting Tybee Island to the mainland flooded and impassable. The Coast Guard had to be on call in case one of the island’s 3,000 residents had a medical emergency and needed to evacuate by boat.

To further advance communication about climate change impacts the DNR is hosting Georgia’s first statewide Climate Readiness conference this fall to help groups concerned with everything from agriculture to public health discuss adaptation strategies.

Adaptation

Besides incorporating climate change adaptation into disaster recovery planning, Jennifer and her colleagues facilitate a Living Shorelines initiative and the Georgia Coastal Hazards Portal. Building living shorelines involves planting marsh grasses instead of building concrete bulkheads to prevent erosion. Georgia’s long and shallow tidal zones make the technique a little tricky, so the program is still being developed. Once ready it will have great potential to buffer Georgia waterfront property and infrastructure from storm surges and high tides. 

The Georgia Coastal Hazards Portal is an online map that shows very specific visualizations of how erosion and sea level rise might affect the coast. It uses projections of sea level rise that vary from 1 to 2 meters of rise by the year 2100. This tool can help anyone, from a private homeowner building a dock to a city council make changes to zoning, to see projected changes in great detail. Offering this tool empowers citizens to see in detail how their coastline might change in coming decades.

In conclusion, a sometimes hostile political climate isn’t stopping people like Jennifer at the Georgia DNR to prepare the state for imminent changes related to a warming atmosphere.