Flooding & Sea Level Rise in the SC Lowcountry

Mean High Water (MHW) is a project documenting the impacts of sea level rise & flooding in and beyond the South Carolina Lowcountry. The title is in reference to the MHW tidal datum defined and maintained by the NOAA Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Service.

The tides of Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean are increasingly encroaching into the natural and built environment of Charleston and the Lowcountry. The rate of increase in the number of coastal flood events is alarming. Approximately 45% of all coastal floods observed in Charleston Harbor from 1953 through 2020 have occurred since 2010. An average of 18.8 coastal floods occurred per year in the 1990s. In the 2010s, the annual average was 42.4 coastal floods2, an increase of over 200%.

MHW was started in 2020 by photographer and engineer Jared Bramblett. It is intended to be an evolving and collaborative documentation of the impacts of flooding. If you are interested in participating and submitting to the project, please reach out. All content on this site is copyrighted. If you are interested in using any content, please submit a request.

Jared Bramblett

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All thoughts and opinions presented on this site are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of any other organizations.

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Charleston Harbor, Cooper River Entrance1

Coastal Floods (>7-ft MLLW)2
89 (2019)
70 (2022)
68 (2020)
58 (2015)
55 (2016)

Major Coastal Floods (>8-ft MLLW)2
7 (2020)
6 (2015)
4 (2021)
4 (2019)
3 (2022, 2018)

Peak Tide Crests (MLLW)3
09/22/1989 - 12.52-ft (Hugo)
08/11/1940 - 10.23-ft (Unnamed)
09/11/2017 - 9.92-ft (Irma)
10/08/2016 - 9.29 (Matthew)
01/01/1987 - 8.81-ft 

29 of the 43 (67.4%) major flood tides on record have occurred since 2015.3

Statistics current as of 01/01/2023


1Tidal Benchmark Station - Charleston, Cooper River Entrance, SC - Station ID: 8665530

2NWS Coastal Flood Event Database

3Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service, Charleston, SC 

On Flooding in Charleston

November 3, 2021

The National Weather Service (NWS) Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Services is predicting significant tidal flooding in Charleston over the next few days. At the time of writing, peak tides of 8.1’ at 8AM Thursday, 8.4’ at 9AM Friday, and 8.8’ at 10AM on Saturday (all reference mean lower low water – MLLW datum) are predicted. These will likely change as the weather forecast changes, but if the 8.8’ tide occurs, it will be the 6th highest on record. This will be equivalent to the tidal flooding we saw around Thanksgiving of 2018.

I received several question on an Instragram story I shared yesterday about the tide predictions asking how significant the flooding would be and if it would be as bad as what we saw earlier in June 2021. I think a quick summary of the various flood risks we face is the area is needed, and that we need to do a better job communicating the risk associated with the type of flood events.

1. Tidal Flooding – Flooding associated with tides that exceed the flood thresholds set by the NWS, which is 7’ for minor tidal flooding, 7.5’ for moderate tidal flooding, and 8’ for major tidal flooding (all reference the MLLW datum) in Charleston Harbor. These floods have been occurring at an increasing frequency, with a record of 89 occurring in 2019. Most tidal floods can be predicted in advance, and with many of them, particularly the minor ones, you may not notice the flooding unless you are in lower areas adjacent to the tidal creeks and marshes.

2. Storm Surge – Flooding associated with tropical storms and hurricanes where the storms push water into the harbor, rivers, and creeks and flood streets, roads, and building. Storm surge can be classified as tidal flooding, but due to the potential significant impacts and relative infrequent probability of occurrence, I’ve separated it into its own category. Surge flooding also has the potential for devastating waves over land, which can be extremely damaging and potentially fatal. Hurricane Hugo’s storm surge in Charleston Harbor reached 12.52’ MLLW, which is the flood of record for Charleston. These floods are predicted with hurricane forecasts.

3. Stormwater Flooding – Flooding that occurs when it rains with greater intensities and/or volumes than our drainage systems (inlets, pipes, pumps, etc.) can handle, resulting in flooding of streets, roads, and sometimes buildings. While rainfall can be predicted, it can be difficult to predict when and where stormwater flooding will occur. This type of flooding is not limited to areas along the shoreline and can happen throughout the City.

4. Combination Flooding – Flooding that occurs when rainfall occurs at or around high tide or during surge events. When tide levels in the rivers and harbor are at or near high tide, they can further limit the ability of the gravity drainage systems to remove rainwater from the roadways. Heavy rains on top of high tides can result in significant flooding.

The flooding that occurred on the evening of June 12 was primarily a stormwater flooding event. Looking at rain gauges on the Weather Underground network, over three (3) inches of rain fell over a few hours, with peak rainfall intensities greater the four (4) inches per hour. The tide in Charleston harbor was approaching low tide, so the tides did not factor into the severity of the flooding. In contrast, the flooding predicted for this upcoming weekend is associated with a low-pressure system that is passing off the coast. There is not significant rainfall predicted in the Charleston area, so the flooding that may occur will be mainly tidal flooding. Hopefully the rainfall predictions do not increase.

As for what to expect for an 8.8’ MLLW tidal flood, the exhibit below presents an analysis of Charleston County LiDAR elevation data. Everything within the blue area is at an elevation of 8.8’ or less. Without any rainfall, these areas should be the maximum flood extents associated with an 8.8’ MLLW tide.

© 2022