When the Sea is Knocking at Your Door

The issue of climate change is a political hot potato, but there is one climate-related reality we must face as it unfolds right before our eyes- that of the rising seas.

Ocean waters have risen by about a foot per century for the last 5,000 years. But virtually all climate scientists say that the pace of sea level rise is increasing precipitously. They estimate at least a two-foot rise and as much as a six-foot rise by the end of this century alone.

Assuming the low-to-middle end of this spectrum and no action taken, a two-foot sea level rise would mean that by 2100, many of Gloucester’s low-lying areas will be flooded much or all of the time. Rogers Street, businesses in east Gloucester’s Rocky Neck, some areas of Magnolia and west Gloucester would all be under water; Good Harbor, Wingaersheek and Niles beaches would be gone. Add in damage from storm surges and you’ve got an even gloomier scenario.

But, you might say, why should we worry about a situation that will occur 80 years from now when we can hardly afford our basic municipal services today?

The economic impact of not planning for sea level rise will be felt much sooner- in fact, we’re already feeling it. Each year, we must pay to repair increasing damage to seawalls. The more than century-old seawall in Lane’s Cove got hit with nearly $500,000 in damages from a 2010 nor’easter. And the Stacy boulevard seawall incurs increasing expenses as it ages and sea levels rise. Some homes near Good Harbor beach are hit with repeated storm damage; backshore roads must repeatedly be rebuilt after intense storms; and storms regularly cause water to overtop the Goose Cove Causeway so that the bridge is beginning to collapse.

We need to figure out how to protect our city infrastructure, coastal homes and businesses so that we can prevent more of these costly scenarios.

Our smartest east coast neighbors are leading the way. The traditionally conservative city of Portland, Maine, is looking hard at economic analyses that show how an investment of $100 million in sea-level rise infrastructure now could save the city as much as $400 million by 2050.

To our south, the town of Hull is part of a pilot project that creates three-dimensional images of flood events and sea level rise to help plan for flooding. Residents there have already taken it upon themselves to fix and pay for the publicly owned seawall barriers. As reported last year in The Boston Globe, Hull resident Gary Bloch said, “It was that or lose our homes.”

Gloucester City planners will soon have access to much improved topographic information, making it possible to more accurately identify the greatest sea-rise-related threats to our community.

But because funding for planning and design of city infrastructure is so miniscule, we’ve all got to be involved in finding creative and cost-effective solutions to this problem. Doing so now will translate to a livable community for us all in our lifetimes.

As residents, our first step is to know what to expect. You might start by reading the most recent Climate Central report called Surging Seas (http://sealevel.climatecentral.org/research/reports/), which describes the biggest sea level rise and storm surge threats to Massachusetts. Massachusetts’ Coastal Zone Management web site (http://www.mass.gov/czm/) has a wealth of information and links to other organizations addressing this issue. The Metro Area Planning Council is doing good work to help northshore communities prepare for rising seas (www.mapc.org)

And last but not least, you can also subscribe the Clean Energy blog at www.gloucestercleanenergy.wordpress.com.

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