Climate Crisis

Region’s Economy Tied Closely to Coastal Health

Is southern New England adequately prepared to deal with rising waters and the power of shifting sands? Not really.


While Westerly was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, only a few of the waterfront properties damaged there were rebuilt to better withstand climate change. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

In late October 2012 Superstorm Sandy assaulted the Northeast. It destroyed some 360,000 homes in New Jersey alone. With estimated damages of $65 billion, Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history and the largest storm of its kind to hit the East Coast, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Sandy’s catastrophic storm surge — 12.7 feet above normal high tide was reported at Kings Point on the western end of Long Island Sound — also provided a glimpse into the region’s coastal future.

“If you want to see what 5 feet of sea-level rise will look like, you look at Hurricane Sandy,” Bryan Oakley, a professor of earth sciences at Eastern Connecticut State University, told those gathered at a Metcalf Institute climate-change seminar held at the University of Rhode Island a month after Sandy’s damaging visit.

The world’s oceans have risen by an average of nearly 8 inches since the beginning of the 20th century, according to Climate Central, a climate research organization. Long-term data from the Newport, R.I., tide gauge show that the local sea level has risen 10 inches in the past century.

The two major causes of sea-level rise are melting land-based ice sheets and the thermal expansion of water. The impacts of this additional water are already being felt. Low-lying islands are seeing their land area reduced, and flooding during storms such as Sandy has been exacerbated. If the deadly hurricane of 1938 struck southern New England again today when the local sea level is nearly a foot higher, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history would pack an even bigger punch.

A 2013 study by the University of Rhode Island projects sea levels will rise 3-5 feet over 1990 levels by 2100. Projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the end of this century are higher.

James Ludes, executive director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., welcomed those who attended a forum there last year entitled “Adapting to Changing Climate: Policy Choices Facing Rhode Island” by saying sea-level rise predicted up to 5 feet is now scientific consensus.

If that happens, southern New England has plenty to lose — culturally, historically and economically. There are more than 20 million Rhode Island beach visits annually, and the total economic value of these beach days is estimated at about $155 million a year. The U.S. Department of Defense is concerned about the impacts of sea-level rise on Naval Station Newport, on the shores of Aquidneck Island.

Sea-level rise and coastal erosion are already redrawing the shorelines and beaches of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. By the end of this century, projected sea-level rise could deliver a significant blow to the economy should the region be ill-prepared. According to many who would know, southern New England as a whole isn’t prepared to deal with rising waters.

Four months into her first year as Rhode Island’s new governor, Gina Raimondo has yet to outline plans for addressing climate change. Her office has ignored multiple requests from ecoRI News seeking comment. Massachusetts’ new governor, Charlie Baker, has flip-flopped on whether he believes climate change is the result of human activity.

A rise of 3-5 feet would put islands and coastal areas, such as Plum Island, where homes have already fallen into the sea, Aquidneck Island, Westerly, R.I., Groton, Conn., and Boston, in jeopardy, and would make storm-prone areas such as these more dangerous places to live.

Downtown Providence and Wickford village in North Kingstown are at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise, according to Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). Coastal roads in Narragansett and Jamestown are at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise.

“We’ve gone to all 21 (Rhode Island) coastal communities to look at the future with some maps,” Pamela Rubinoff, of URI’s Coastal Resources Center, said at a public meeting last year. “While we don’t know when the next nor’easter or hurricane will come, we do know that the damage is going to be worse. How can we choose to act differently? Will we need to retreat in some areas? In some areas, yes. In all areas we need to be more resilient.”

In Newport, for example, sea level-rise maps of the city’s waterfront, the heart of a thriving tourist economy, reveal large swaths of harbor-side neighborhoods inundated and prominent waterside landmarks partially submerged, all within an enlarged harbor created by an additional 5 feet of sea.

Newport’s tourism industry, real-estate market and, by extension, the city’s tax base are threatened by the rising sea. It’s a financial concern for all of southern New England, which relies heavily on Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound, Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay to support a vital tourism industry and many other economic interests.

Here are some of Climate Central’s facts and figures regarding coastal flooding and sea-level rise in southern New England:

In Massachusetts, 47,888 people live on land that is exposed to 4-foot floods. Of that total, 17,662 are considered highly vulnerable, based on economic and social criteria. There is a 67 percent chance of a 4-foot-high flood in Boston by 2030.

In Connecticut, nearly $15 billion in property and 53,406 people are situated on land that is less than 6 feet above the high-tide line. There is a 33 percent chance of a flood that high in Bridgeport by 2040.

In Rhode Island, nearly $4.5 billion worth of property lies on land less than 5 feet above the high-tide line. There is a 33 percent chance of a flood that high in Newport by 2040.

“This is a topic of significant interest to the entire state, nation and world,” James Boyd, a coastal policy analyst for CRMC, told an audience gathered in mid-March at Barrington Public Library to view the documentary “Shored Up.” “Sea-level rise is happening around the world and it’s having an impact on the economy, on real estate, coastal habitats and the shoreline.”

He noted that if someone were to buy a waterfront home in Rhode Island today with a typical 30-year mortgage there was a 26 percent chance a 100-year storm would hit during the life of that mortgage.

Matunuck, R.I., shoreline
Erosion along the Matunuck, R.I., shoreline is a growing concern. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Eroding landscape

Up and down the southern New England coast, erosion is happening faster than the rate of recovery for beaches and wetlands, and flooding is becoming more frequent and more intense.

By 2050, much of the country’s coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding annually because of dramatically accelerating impacts from sea-level rise, according to a 2014 NOAA study.

“Coastal communities are beginning to experience sunny-day nuisance or urban flooding, much more so than in decades past,” the report’s authors wrote. “This is due to sea-level rise. Unfortunately, once impacts are noticed, they will become commonplace rather quickly. We find that in 30 to 40 years, even modest projections of global sea-level rise will increase instances of daily high-tide flooding to a point requiring an active, and potentially costly, response.”

In Massachusetts, Duxbury, Marshfield and Scituate are on the front line of southern New England’s struggle against the encroaching sea and shifting sands. In fact, Jim O’Connell has said Scituate is the most vulnerable coastal community in the state. He should know. Besides being a coastal geologist and coastal land-use specialist, O’Connell lives in the seaside Scituate village of Brant Rock.

This decade, Boston is averaging nine days of flooding a year, up from an average of three floods in the 2000s, according to NOAA. In fact, when it comes to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, a 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists report lists Boston among the 30 most at-risk historic areas in the country.

The 84-page report claims rising waters are a threat to several key Boston attractions, such as historic Long Wharf, the Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall, which is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and Blackstone Block, a compact district of narrow streets and alleys dating to the 17th century.

On Cape Cod, policymakers, business owners and residents have been raising concerns about sea-level rise and other climate-change issues, such as coastal erosion and rising insurance rates.

Groton, Conn., with 20 miles of coastline along Long Island Sound, is already experiencing more frequent flooding, according to the city’s environmental planner, Deborah Jones. Groton is hardly alone on this waterlogged front.

Eventually, all of these concerns associated with sea-level rise will reveal themselves in visible changes to infrastructure, landscapes and bank accounts.

An osprey sits on a pole
An osprey sits on a pole above the salt marsh at the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme, Conn. (Jerry Monkman/Coastal Resilience)

Game of survival

Unfortunately, the areas that need protection from rising seas are both natural habitats and manmade structures. In many ways, the two are competing for survival.

At the center of this environmental protection vs. economic development dilemma are the region’s salt marshes. Marshes are coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by the tides. Situated at the transition between land and sea, they are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. And besides supporting a diverse mix of wildlife, they also buffer the coast from storms and protect against flooding.

Sea-level rise, however, is drowning them. A recent mapping project led by CRMC projects half of Rhode Island’s remaining marshes will be lost if the sea rises by 3 feet.

One way to protect these vulnerable resources from sea-level rise is to give them room to migrate inland. But in many southern New England coastal communities, roads, businesses, homes and seawalls block the way. Removing those kind of structures, especially privately owned ones, would take considerable political will and plenty of community and business cooperation. It also would be quite expensive.

For salt marshes blocked by development, CRMC is working with state and federal agencies to increase their height. This process, called thin-layer deposition (TLD), works by spraying dredged sediment on the surface of threatened marshes with the intent of extending their life by 30-40 years.

“When you start talking about filling marshes, it’s a little counterintuitive, but these are some of the extreme things we are talking about in the face of sea-level rise,” Caitlin Chaffee, a CRMC policy analyst, said during a December 2014 meeting of the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4).

TLD projects are planned in the next two years at the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge along the Narrow River in Narragansett and at state-owned marshes in the Ninigret salt ponds in Charlestown.

Beside killing valuable salt marshes, rising seas also will overwhelm coastal cesspools and septic systems, which will pollute groundwater, contaminate drinking water and damage vital ecosystems, such as already under-siege salt marshes.

As sea level rises, so do tidal and storm-surge heights, increasing flooding events that make the soil saltier and wetter, which decreases the amount of dissolved oxygen in the soil and inhibits beneficial microorganisms from breaking down wastewater pollutants, according to Meredith Haas, of Rhode Island Sea Grant.

The impact of sea-level rise on groundwater systems is particularly concerning to Cape Cod’s drinking-water supply.

Wakefield flooding in 2010
The floods of March 2010 left the intersection of Providence, River and Wakefield streets in West Warwick, R.I., underwater. (NOAA)

Complex situation

To cope with the rising tide of climate change, Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration at Providence-based Save The Bay, says southern New England has two friends: distance and elevation.

To move and/or raise tens of thousands of coastal homes and businesses, however, would be a daunting task, despite, as Fugate has noted, that for every $1 in adaptation spent $4 in disaster relief is saved.

Protecting southern New England’s manmade and natural assets from rising waters is a tangled mess of property rights, business interests and environmental protections. Addressing this complex problem will likely require a mix of reinforcing shoreline barriers, creating more space for nature to adapt, enhanced building codes, marsh protection and restoration, some form of retreat, and, most definitely, compromise and sacrifice. It means addressing climate-change impacts now. The status quo will only make it more costly for future generations.

“We’re educating people, our ratepayers, so they understand that we’ll be spending some money on (adaptions), but in the long run it will save a lot of money and a lot of aggravation, because responding in this emergency-type mode all the time is so much more expensive,” Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority, said during a Feb. 11 EC4 meeting regarding the impacts and the recovery from the 2010 floods.

Southern New England experienced historic and devastating flooding in late March of that year, and Warwick, R.I., was hit particularly hard. The city’s wastewater treatment facility, not far from the Pawtuxet River, was inundated when a protective levee — built for a 100-year storm — was breached by the river by some 3 feet, completely submerging the facility and six pumping stations along the river.

The flooding knocked out power and all treatment operations. As a result of the damage, the facility was unable to effectively process wastewater for a week, and it took several additional months to restore operations to full capacity. All told, the flood caused nearly $14 million in local damages.

At a cost of at least $4 million, Warwick’s wastewater treatment facility and the city’s network of pipes and pump stations are being rebuilt to withstand a 500-year storm event.

Warwick’s wastewater treatment facility was one of six such Rhode Island facilities overwhelmed by the 200-year flood event from five years ago. This heightened problem has prompted the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to launch a project with CRMC to study the impacts of climate change on wastewater treatment facilities.

Warwick Mall flooded in 2010
The floods of March 2010 severely damaged the Warwick Mall, but the shopping center reopened in mid-May without having addressed any future climate-change impacts. (NOAA)

Rising waters

The Warwick Mall was flooded by several feet of water during the late-March floods of 2010. A mall security guard had to be rescued by boat. By early April, the floodwaters had receded. Most stores had to be gutted and all inventory was declared a loss. The mall reopened in mid-May, without addressing any future climate-change impacts.

“The Warwick Mall, in rebuilding, has done nothing to adapt and was rebuilt to its preexisting condition. If the flood were to happen again today, the exact same thing would happen,” Warwick City Planner William DePasquale told the Rhode Island Climate Change Collaborative.

Boston officials have begun mapping low-lying areas and critical infrastructure that are most likely to be inundated by a rising sea. Modeling maps show that if sea levels rise just 2.5 feet, it would likely take little more than a nor’easter to put much of the Back Bay, South Boston, East Boston, Cambridge and Chelsea underwater.

The city’s Water and Sewer Commission has begun inspecting hundreds of miles of sewers, storm drains and pumping stations to assess what needs to be done to protect Boston’s infrastructure from a rising sea. The city also now requires its departments to consider sea-level rise in planning decisions.

New Shoreham, R.I., is evaluating the potential impacts of sea-level rise on ferry terminal operations and access to Block Island. Bristol, R.I., is looking at alternatives to critical road access impacted by storm-surge flooding.

Many municipalities in southern New England, however, are vastly unprepared to address the long-term issues associated with a changing climate, such as sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Most lack funding for infrastructure upgrades, and few have plans in place for how to rebuild after a storm.

In fact, homes, businesses and roads damaged by storms are often being rebuilt without much thought being given to storm surge, erosion or future sea-level rise. In Westerly, for example, of the 29 waterfront properties damaged by Sandy, only five were built to better withstand climate change, Lisa Konicki executive director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the Feb. 11 EC4 meeting.

In Rhode Island, the EC4 hasn’t addressed rebuilding rules or the concept of returning developed property along the coast to open space, a process called “managed retreat.” The council can’t require municipalities to adopt such preservation measures, even in densely built residential and commercial areas where natural shoreline is threatened or no longer exists. The EC4 only makes suggestions to the governor, the General Assembly and agencies with regulatory powers such as CRMC.

Beach house threatened by erosion
Erosion around beachfront properties can expose components of septic systems that were once buried. (R.I. Sea Grant)

Tool box

More frequent and intense storms, more powerful storm surges, unrelenting coastal erosion, increased flooding and projections of future sea-level rise are already squeezing the economy with higher flood-insurance premiums.

Modeling of sea-level rise of 2-5 feet by various institutions, organizations and universities predicts big changes are in store for much of southern New England’s coastline. Considerable erosion, flooding and loss of marshland are among some of the predicted changes; in many places these changes are already well underway.

State agencies and conservation groups are looking at ways to preserve and protect the remaining coastal wetlands and, in some cases, help them migrate inland.

Here are some of online tools intended to help these groups, as well as property owners and planners, see and adapt to the impacts of sea-level rise:

CRMC created online maps showing where Rhode Island coastal wetlands might migrate inland or shrink. These Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) maps look at 1, 3 and 5 feet of sea-level rise. Marshes in upper Narragansett Bay and Jamestown show significant shift. To find your neighborhood, click here.

StormTools shows maps of projected coastal flooding in Rhode Island by combining storm surges and sea-level rise. The online resource looks at 1,2, 3 and 5 feet of sea-level rise matched with 25-, 50- and 100-year storms.

Shoreline Change maps look at Rhode Island coastal erosion between 1939 and 2003. The maps will soon be updated to reflect erosion changes through 2014. Future maps will show projected erosion at 2050 and 2100.

The Connecticut Coastal Hazards Viewer is an online mapping tool designed to allow users access to pertinent information about sea-level rise, coastal elevation, storm surge, coastal erosion, and environmental observations such as tides, water quality, waves and currents.

Flood-insurance maps for Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut give an approximate look at flood-plain boundaries. The zones are based on anticipated flooding from heavy rains, coastal storms and hurricanes. The maps don’t factor in the potential impacts of sea-level rise.

A sea-level rise and coastal flood online mapping tool by Climate Central illustrates the economic risks facing New England as sea levels rise. More than $32 billion in property in the region’s five coastal states is at risk of extreme coastal flooding, according to analysis by the independent organization of scientists and journalists.

“We may need to begin planning for a category 3 hurricane landfall every decade or so rather than every 100 or 200 years,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientist Jeff Donnelly said earlier this year when a study he helped author about hurricanes was released. “The risk may be much greater than we anticipated.”

ecoRI News reporter Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.


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  1. Unfortunately, this is true- the most vulnerable areas are in the southern part of the state and in nearby Connecticut where everybody from northern RI comes to go to the shore or the beaches, which won’t be there anymore in the future unless action is taken now. More attention is being paid and funding is being allocated to communities that need it; I just hope it is not too little, too late.

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