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Facing rise in ocean levels at Shore

East Point Lighthouse stands about 118 feet from the high-tide line on South Jersey's Delaware Bay shore, but it used to be much farther away.

East Point Lighthouse stands about 118 feet from the high-tide line on South Jersey's Delaware Bay shore, but it used to be much farther away.

The historic structure at the mouth of the Maurice River was 460 feet from the high-water mark when it was inspected in 1908, according to the Maurice River Historical Society, which has helped to restore the lighthouse, and is keeping a careful eye on its proximity to the ocean. By 2008, the margin had shrunk to 174 feet, and then to 118 feet in 2013.

The measurements indicate not only that the ocean is encroaching on this isolated corner of New Jersey's coastline, but also that the pace of its approach has more than tripled, from three feet a year for the first 105 years in which it was monitored to 11 feet a year since 2008.

The shrinking distance between the bay and the lighthouse is just one local sign of global sea-level rise that was highlighted in the latest report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said on March 31 that coastal communities are threatened by rising oceans that are being swollen by melting polar ice caps.

A more dire report released Sunday by the IPCC found that the global rate of greenhouse gas emissions rose by 2.2 percent annually in the 2000-10 period, up from the 1.3 percent yearly increase from 1970 to 2000. The report says delaying aggressive steps to cut carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming will result in more limited, more costly options.

In the nearby community of East Point, whose single row of 13 houses is on the very edge of the bay shore, owners continue to repair and rebuild after the devastation of Sandy, and try to prepare for whatever the elements may throw at them.

Some have elevated their houses, and others have built up bulkheads, but all, it seems, are determined that their dream of a waterfront view won't be destroyed by fears of seas lapping at their foundations.

"When you get a full moon and a strong tide, the water will hit the bulkhead," said David Feenan, who recently bought his 720-square-foot house for $55,900 after the previous owner decided he didn't want to deal with another Sandy. The house's value is down from its peak of $289,000, Feenan said.

He has rebuilt a bay-side deck that was washed away in the storm, and has installed a concrete seawall whose top is just two feet above an old wooden bulkhead. During a high tide, the water can rise as far as the top of the bulkhead, he said.

But he won't raise the house and doesn't have flood insurance because he doesn't have a mortgage so he doesn't have to meet those requirements. He is not too concerned about predictions of rising seas in coming decades because, at age 49, he figures he won't be around if or when it happens.

"In 30 years, I probably won't be here, so I'm not too worried," he said, adding that he won't be seeking a bailout in the event of another megastorm or inundation.

Across the Maurice River to the west, rising sea levels are eating away at other parts of Cumberland County's coastline, flooding roads, eroding beaches, and killing forests with saltwater inundation.

Along the Atlantic coast, too, communities are facing frequent flooding.

In Little Egg Harbor Township, flooding of streets near the shore has been a more frequent problem since Sandy, said Mike Fromosky, assistant township administrator.

He estimated that neighborhoods such as Osborn Island, a community of 500 on the edge of Little Egg Harbor, get water in the streets once a month.

Fromosky said sea-level rise probably contributes, but he suspects that Sandy is mostly to blame for the flooding because of its massive disruption of coastal channels that left back bays such as Little Egg Harbor more exposed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Gene Kobryn, deputy mayor of the township where 4,000 houses were damaged during Sandy, said sea level was coming up, albeit slowly, and is adding to the challenge of coastal development in areas like Osborn Island.

The township is awaiting recommendations on resilience measures from the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, a public entity whose "Getting to Resilience" program is due to produce similar reports for around 40 other New Jersey towns. Studies have also begun for Seaside Park, Brick, and Sea Bright, said Lisa Auermuller, a scientist with the organization.

If local evidence of sea-level rise is anecdotal and incremental, the Atlantic City tide gauge provides clear data that waters are rising - at about 5.3 millimeters a year, a faster rate than the 4 millimeters a year during the 20th century.

While a few millimeters a year of sea-level rise remains an abstraction to many coastal residents, climate scientists warn that the accumulated effect will cause major disruption in years to come.