US Coastal Populations Growing, At Risk of Extreme Weather

Nearly 40% of the US population is concentrated in counties directly on the shoreline, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with input from the US Census Bureau.

On top of that, US coastal populations are set to grow from 123 million people as it stands today, to 134 million people by 2020.

This despite the fact that the past few years in America have seen some of the most violent storms in living memory, including Hurricanes Sandy, Isaac, and Katrina.

“People who live near the shore, and managers of these coastal communities, should be aware of how this population growth may affect their coastal areas over time,” said Holly Bamford, Ph.D., assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service. “As more people move to the coast, county managers will see a dual challenge — protecting a growing population from coastal hazards, as well as protecting coastal ecosystems from a growing population.”

Coastal Populations Growing Despite Increasing Risk
Population density is growing at the coast.
Image Credit: NOAA

The report, the National Coastal Population Report: Populations Trends from 1970 to 2020, is based on data analysed from the 2010 census which found that 39 percent of the US population is living in a county situated on a shoreline, a space less than 10% of the US land area (excluding Alaska). Another 52% live in counties that drain to coastal watersheds, an area less than 20% of the US land area (excluding Alaska).

For sure the data used is a couple of years old now, and one wonders whether recent storms like Sandy and Isaac may in fact affect the population growth of coastal regions.

Hurricane Sandy is listed as the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclone of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, as well as the second-costliest hurricane in US history. It cost the life of 147 people (plus another 138 reported indirect deaths) and cost upwards of $75 billion as it struck through the Greater Antilles, Bahamas, and most of the eastern United States coastline. Such a storm could very well have a lasting impact on the perceived security of the east coast region, but only time will be able to show that out.

Beyond simply presenting the facts derived from the census, the report additionally offers coastal managers and other users two perspectives on population growth along the US coast. For the first time users will be shown the traditional perspective looking at status and trends throughout counties that drain to coastal watersheds, and a newer focus that focuses only on those counties directly bordering the coast (including those counties bordering the Great Lakes).

“Understanding the demographic context of coastal areas is vital for our nation and helps us to meet the challenges of tomorrow,” said James Fitzsimmons, assistant chief of the Census Bureau’s population division. “To help inform policymakers and the public through this report, the Census Bureau developed a new measure of coastal populations.”

There are several benefits behind the study that coastal managers and county policy makers will find, according to NOAA;

Coastal population statistics in the overall total of 769 Coastal Watershed Counties provide context for coastal water quality and coastal ecosystem health related issues, and data from the 452 of those counties that lie directly on the shoreline, called Coastal Shoreline Counties, can be used to talk about coastal resilience, coastal hazards, and other ocean-resource dependent issues.

“Whether you’re talking about watershed counties or shoreline counties, the coast is substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole,” said report editor Kristen Crossett of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “Population density in shoreline counties is more than six times greater than the corresponding inland counties. And the projected growth in coastal areas will increase population density at a faster rate than the country as a whole.”

The report is available on NOAA’s State of the Coast website, and is highly recommended reading for anyone in positions of authority in coastal communities.

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