2014-03-07 / Around Town

Sea Level Forum Seeks Solutions

By Tom Shevlin

If scientists are right, Newport could soon be facing a rising tide that could have a profound impact on the way we live, work, and play.

Sea level rise and the city’s response was the topic for a lively discussion on Tuesday, March 4 at the Newport Yacht Club. Part of the city’s ongoing Engage Newport series, the evening featured remarks from a host of policy and environmental experts who all agreed that coastal communities such as Newport need to be prepared for the impacts of higher seas that could regularly inundate areas normally threatened from only the fiercest storms.

Panelists, which included Grover Fugate, the executive director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council; Michelle Burnett, a floodplain manager for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency; Newport’s Director of Civic Investment Paul Carroll; and Teresa Crean of URI’s Coastal Resources Center-Sea Grant Program, detailed what Newport might look like under higher seas and reviewed the findings of a months-long study modeled by scientists at URI.

Several dozen people turned out for the presentation, which was backlit by a roaring fire in the main meeting space of the Newport Yacht Club.

“This is a problem that will affect the entire state,” said Burnett.

According to Crean, while sea levels are expected to rise by 3-5 feet by the end of the century, the effects are expected to be felt much sooner.

Sea levels have been rising steadily over the last century, driven primarily by an increase in global ocean and surface temperatures that have shrunk arctic and Antarctic ice sheets.

Since 1900, sea level has increased by seven inches, claiming low-lying shorelines and protective coastal barriers. In the Northeast, sea level has been rising even faster, with an observed six-inch increase between 1970 and 2012 alone. At that rate, seas are projected to be 3-5 feet higher along the East Coast by 2100, and one foot above 1990 levels by 2050.

The impact for Newport – on its economy, its ecology, its historic stock of homes, and its disaster preparedness – were all part of the conversation.

According to Crean, infrastructure including roads and buildings may all need to be raised or relocated in the coming decades as coastal flooding becomes more pronounced. Salt marshes, which provide critical habitat for local wildlife, could also be impacted, as could local businesses closest to the harbor.

The threat was detailed in computer-generated images that showed what an average spring tide could look like with a threefoot increase in sea levels. There, Newporters were asked to imagine the first floor of the harbormaster’s office at Perrotti Park flooded, the Ann Street Pier totally submerged, and water lapping onto America’s Cup Avenue.

Paul Carroll said that whatever Newport does to spur economic development in its coastal zone will have to take into account the threat posed by sea level rise.

In addition to regular higher tides, he also noted that the city will need to be prepared for the effects of major storms like hurricanes and nor'easters which have wreaked havoc in recent years – damaging such popular tourist areas as the Cliff Walk and Ocean Drive.

Where possible, Fugate’s CRMC is advising that communities begin to plan now to put into place natural and manmade barriers that could mitigate higher seas. One area that’s being explored is the installation of living shorelines, which would utilize natural buffer zones to help control erosion, provide a cushion during storms, and help restore marine life that naturally dulls tidal damage and improves water quality.

State building codes are also being amended in response to the long-term risk posed to property and public infrastructure like water treatment facilities that tend to be located in close proximity to the shoreline.

Homeowners are also contending with rising insurance costs and many are facing the prospect of having to relocate or elevate.

Last month, zoning officials approved a proposal to raise a historic 18th century home in The Point by almost four feet. The owners’ representatives cited increased flooding as a direct cause for the request.

Newporters are encouraged to learn more about sea level rise by visiting the city’s Engage Newport website at EngageNewport.com. There, visitors can access a range of scientific data on a dedicated resources page, weigh in on their own experience with sea level rise, and take a survey about how it will likely effect Newport.

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