Study: Warming to worsen hurricane damage in Texas

Flooding and damage along the Texas Gulf Coast from major hurricanes is expected to be more severe in the coming years due to global warming, according to a study released Monday.

Engineering researchers at Texas A&M University focused on Corpus Christi to illustrate how climate change will affect hurricane-related flooding and storm surge damage along the Texas Gulf Coast.

"It's going to get worse," said Jennifer Irish, an assistant professor of Coastal and Ocean Engineering at Texas A&M in College Station. "Hurricanes pose a significant threat to the Texas coast, as most recently demonstrated by Hurricane Ike."

Irish and her fellow researchers unveiled their study in Galveston, which suffered extensive flooding damage in September when Ike's 12-foot storm surge rumbled ashore, damaging about 75% of the homes on the island city. Ike was the costliest disaster in Texas history, causing more than $29 billion in damage.

The study was released on the first day of the 2009 hurricane season.

The study projected that rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes, due to global warming, will increase structural damage to homes and buildings from a major hurricane in Corpus Christi by 60% to 100% in about 20 years and by more than 250% by the 2080s.

Such a catastrophic storm surge event would translate into projected damage increases of between $100 million to $250 million in around 20 years and of between $250 million and more than $1 billion by the 2080s.

But Irish said such potential damage could happen anywhere along the Texas Gulf Coast and even the rest of the U.S. Gulf Coast due to global warming, in which carbon dioxide and other gases added to the air by industrial and other activities have been blamed for rising global temperatures. This has increased worries about possible major changes in weather and climate.

Corpus Christi, which has a population of about 282,000, is one of the state's most popular tourist destinations and is home to petroleum refineries, a naval base and a university. It is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by low-lying barrier islands Mustang and Padre.

The study says the city is especially vulnerable to sea level increases because the surrounding coastal land is sinking and its barrier islands are eroding.

Irish said she hopes the study can offer government officials guidance on building new communities and protecting current ones along the coast.

Kim Womack, a spokeswoman for Corpus Christi, said city officials are improving their response to storms and how they plan and construct new communities. But she said officials wanted to read the study before commenting further.

Researchers used three previous hurricanes that have hit Texas — Beulah, Carla and Bret — to create models to predict the effect rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes would have on Corpus Christi.

The A&M researchers based their predictions on climate scenarios from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That international team of experts shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore for their work on climate change.

The panel in 2007 projected that sea levels worldwide could rise by an average of 7 to 23 inches this century.

"It's our obligation to consider what could happen in the future with (the panel's) projections," Irish said.

The study was funded by the National Commission on Energy Policy, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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