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ResearcResearchers have thought about how storm surges and rising sea levels will hurt the built environment along the coast. But what about the effects of climate change that aren’t as easy to see? A new study by civil engineers at Colorado State University investigates the hidden costs of building foundations due to sea level rise. They suggest a way to check things and fix them so that saltwater corrosion doesn’t cost as much to fix.

Researchers at CSU’s NIST Center for Risk-Based Community Resilience Planning think it’s important to plan ahead, especially since there are more than 16 million buildings along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. “This is a slow-moving disaster,” said lead author Charles Scawthorn, a professor in CSU’s civil and environmental engineering department. “It’s not like an earthquake or hurricane, where you can see the devastation and then start rebuilding.” “With sea-level rise, it’s a long-term problem that will continue to get worse.”

What’s Going on Underneath Our Feet? 

To investigate how sea-level rise will impact building foundations, Scawthorn and his team performed chemical analyses of samples taken from foundation walls in New Orleans. It was exposed to saltwater during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They found that saltwater can cause significant corrosion, even in concrete that is just slightly damp.

“We assumed that as long as concrete is dry, it’s safe from saltwater,” Scawthorn said. “But we found that just being exposed to humid air was enough to trigger corrosion in these concrete foundation walls.”

What This Means for Homeowners 

The results could affect homeowners all along the coast, some of whom may not even know that their homes are in danger. Corrosion can cause cracks and chips, but it can also weaken the structure of concrete, which can lead to expensive repairs or even cause buildings to fall down. And since 16 million buildings are in danger, the cost of fixing them could be huge.

“If we don’t start planning now, this is going to be a huge issue for coastal communities in the future,” Scawthorn said. “We need to find ways to protect our infrastructure from saltwater damage, both above and below ground.”

Scawthorn and his team have made a tool to figure out how likely it is that saltwater will damage building foundations. This will help reduce the hidden costs of rising sea levels. The tool is currently being tested by engineering firms as a beta version. It will help engineers figure out which buildings are getting weaker and come up with ways to protect them. 

Scawthorn said, “It’s important that we start thinking about all parts of resilience when we plan for sea-level rise.” “We will all have to deal with this problem at some point, so we need to be ready.”


As sea levels continue to rise and storm surges become more common, it’s important to think about the slow-moving disaster happening right under our feet. Saltwater can do a lot of expensive damage to building foundations if nothing no one does anything. To help solve this problem, researchers at Colorado State University have made a tool for figuring out what the risks are. This tool also shows how to deal with them. When we plan for sea level rise, we need to start thinking about all aspects of resilience. This is because this is a problem that will affect us all in the long run.

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