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Study finds climate change is threatening home foundations

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise dramatically. Because of this, saltwater is intruding further inland and corroding the supportiveness of soil beneath residential home foundations. 

According to a recent study, if sea levels rise continue to rise, the annual cost of foundation repair for nearly 137,000 residential buildings in low-lying areas around Mobile Bay, AL may reach up to US$90 million by 2100. 

The figure below shows the rate of rising sea levels in the coastal regions of the United States: 

This means that homeowners need to be aware of the effects of climate change on their home foundations and take action to protect them. 

What the Study Found 

Researchers at Colorado State University have been studying the impact of climate change on coastal homes. They’ve discovered that rising sea levels can lead to saltwater intrusion (SWI), a phenomenon that can weaken building foundations. 

Examining around 137,000 homes in Mobile Bay, Alabama, they explored different sea-level rise scenarios, assessing the potential impact on soil stability and foundations. The team considered many factors, such as building age, size, and soil characteristics. 

Their method was to estimate potential foundation damage in a sequential manner. They analyzed how much of the foundation might be exposed to saltwater, the effects of rising groundwater due to sea level increase, and possible uncertainties around when corrosion may start. They then calculated the potential repair costs and the additional costs incurred by homeowners during the repair period. 

The findings indicated a considerable risk of expensive damages. Under extreme sea-level rise conditions, they predicted annual foundation repair costs could reach $90 million by 2100. Notably, buildings situated 3-5 miles from the shoreline may be most at risk. 

The researchers aim for these findings to inform policymakers’ planning strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change on coastal buildings. 

Wider Takeaways of the Study 

Here are the implications of this study for homeowners in coastal regions: 

  • Rising Sea Levels: As climate change causes sea levels to rise, coastal residential areas are increasingly at risk. 
  • Significant Costs: The financial impact of climate change on residential buildings can be enormous. The study estimated potential repair costs of up to $90 million annually by 2100 for the studied area alone, under an extreme sea level rise scenario. This is a significant economic burden, and it’s likely to be replicated in other coastal regions globally as sea levels continue to rise. 
  • Location Matters: The study found that buildings located 5-10 km away from the shoreline could be most vulnerable to SWI. This indicates that it’s not just properties directly on the coast that need to worry about the effects of sea level rise. Even homes somewhat inland may be at risk due to the intrusion of saltwater into the groundwater. 
  • Importance of Infrastructure Data: Having detailed data on buildings (like building type, construction material, number of stories, and foundation type and depth) is crucial for assessing the potential impact of climate change on residential infrastructure. The more data we have, the better we can prepare for and mitigate these impacts. 
  • Need for Mitigation Strategies: The study highlights the need for effective risk mitigation strategies. These could include changes in construction practices, like building deeper or more resilient foundations, and planning regulations, like restricting building in high-risk areas. These strategies will be essential to minimize the impacts of climate change on residential buildings. 

Are Rising Sea Levels the Only Climate-Related Issue Affecting My Foundation? 

No, climate change can affect your home’s foundation in several ways: 

  • Changes in Soil Moisture Content: Climate change can lead to changes in precipitation patterns, causing periods of heavy rainfall followed by drought. Soil expands when wet and contracts when dry, causing the soil to shift. This shift can displace your home’s foundation, causing cracks and other damage. 
  • Increased Flooding: Climate change can increase the risk of flooding in certain areas. If your home is in a flood-prone area, the foundation may be at risk of water damage. Flooding can erode the soil around your foundation, causing it to settle and crack. It can also increase hydrostatic pressure which can cause basement walls to crack or bow. 
  • Changes in Vegetation: Changes in temperature and precipitation can affect the health of vegetation around your home. If trees and plants that used to absorb water from the soil die off, this could lead to an increase in soil moisture, which can affect the foundation. Conversely, if trees and plants require more water due to increased temperatures, they could potentially draw too much moisture from the soil, causing it to contract and affect your foundation. 
  • Thawing Permafrost: For homes in colder climates built on permafrost, global warming can cause this layer to thaw. When permafrost thaws, the soil can become unstable, leading to the sinking or shifting of your foundation. 

How Do I know if Climate Change is Hurting My Foundation? 

  • Water Damage: Climate change can lead to more frequent and intense storms, which can cause flooding or water damage to your foundation. 
  • Cracks in the Foundation: If your area is experiencing more extreme temperature fluctuations due to climate change, this can cause the soil to expand and contract more dramatically, leading to foundation shifts or cracks. 
  • Unusually Dry Soil: Extended periods of drought can lead to unusually dry soil. This can cause the soil to shrink away from the foundation, leading to instability. 
  • Increased Humidity in Basements or Crawl Spaces: If your area is experiencing increased humidity due to climate change, this can lead to damp basements or crawl spaces, damaging the foundation over time. 
  • Changes in Vegetation Around Your Home: Climate change can affect local flora. If you notice changes in the vegetation around your home, like dying trees or plants, this could be a sign of changes in the soil that might affect your foundation. 
  • Basement Mold: Increased rainfall or humidity can lead to mold or mildew in your basement, signaling water damage to your foundation. 
  • Uneven or Sagging Floors: This can be a sign of foundation settling or shifting, possibly due to climate-related changes in soil composition or moisture levels. 
  • Sticking Doors or Windows: If doors or windows in your home start sticking, it could be a sign of foundation issues caused by shifting soil due to extreme weather events or changes in moisture levels. 
  • Gaps Around Window Frames or Exterior Doors: These can be signs of a shifting foundation, possibly caused by soil changes due to climate fluctuations. 
  • Increased Pest Intrusions: Changes in climate can drive pests like termites or carpenter ants to migrate. These pests can cause damage to the wooden structures supporting your home, indirectly affecting the integrity of your foundation. 

Remember, noticing any of these signs doesn’t confirm that climate change is affecting your home’s foundation. It is always best to reach out to a trusted expert like Groundworks is a prudent step to ensure proper assessment and repair. 

What Can I Do to Protect My Foundation Against Climate Change? 

There are several steps you can take to protect your foundation against the effects of climate change, including: 

  • Ensuring proper drainage around your home to prevent water from pooling near the foundation 
  • Installing a sump pump to remove excess water from your basement or crawl space 
  • Sealing any cracks in your foundation to prevent water from seeping in 
  • Extending downspouts the proper distance from your home 

By taking these steps, you can help protect your home foundation from the effects of climate change and ensure that your home remains safe and secure for years to come. 

The most effective thing you can do to protect your home against climate-related issues is calling a foundation repair specialist as soon as possible. Your foundation issues will only get worse if you ignore them, and many solutions require professional care. 

The Groundworks family of companies has service locations across the nation with local experts ready to help you get started. 

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