It’s scary to think that oceans are rising

Deborah McDermott
July 28, 2013 2:00 AM

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on sea level rise in the Seacoast. In future weeks, adaptation measures by individual municipalities will be highlighted.

Superstorm Sandy was a bellwether for coastal New England, say regional and state coastal environmentalists and scientists. The devastation it wreaked is proof of the need for communities to be proactive in looking at their own vulnerabilities — whether or not people see climate change as the cause.

“Sea level rise is happening, whether you want to believe it or not,” said Ted Diers of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, and he ticks off the reasons:

— The Greenland ice cap is melting

— Geologically, the land in New England has stopped shifting

— The ocean is warming, which expands ocean water that “has to go somewhere.”

“Whether you think climate change is the cause doesn’t really matter, in my mind,” said Diers, administrator of the DES Watershed Management Bureau. “The fact is, these crazy storms are going to be increasing and this is something we should be thinking about now.”

JT Lockman of the consulting firm Catalysis Adaptation Partners in Portland, Maine, draws an analogy.

“If you’re robbed, you would immediately spend money to fix the damage, and get better locks,” he said. “You could take the position that until someone can explain to you why you were robbed you aren’t going to spend any money. But I think most people would agree it’s important to do something now.”

From Seabrook, inland up the coastal river systems and into York County, Maine, the effects of the rising oceans will over time have economic, social, infrastructure and geological impacts.

In the past five or so years, precise modeling maps have become possible due to the introduction of the Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR, laser measuring system. Projections based on this modeling indicate that in the Seacoast, the ocean will rise between 3 and 6 feet by 2100.

Derek Sowers, project manager of the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, said storms are going to become more frequent and more powerful in the near future and long term.

Based on modeling by the University of New Hampshire, he said, a 150-year storm will become a 25-year storm in coastal New Hampshire by the mid-21st century if current carbon emission levels remain constant.

The economic costs are significant. According to a 2013 study by risk modeling consultants AIR Worldwide, the insured value of properties in the coastal counties of New Hampshire is $64 billion.

In 2006, Maine state economist Charles Colgan and University of Southern Maine environmental financial expert Sam Merrill conducted a study on the economic impact of increasingly severe storms on seven communities in York County. At the time, they pegged the costs of wages at at-risk businesses at more than $40 million.

“This isn’t just a little environmental issue we can ignore,” Sowers said. “There’s a true economic and public safety cost. Can we ignore that at our own peril, or recognize scientific realities and plan for the future?”

Regional cooperation

The New Hampshire Seacoast has long had a sea level rise champion in the Coastal Adaptation Workgroup, or CAW, a consortium of local, state, federal and nonprofit agencies based in this area. CAW has been meeting monthly since 2009 to share information on the work each has been doing and to coordinate forums and workshops for area municipalities.

“We want to convey what we’re doing to our communities in a consistent way so we’re not sending out mixed messages about the importance of this issue,” said Sowers, a member of CAW.

Cameron Wake, associate professor of climatology at UNH and on the staff of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, is another member. Wake has been working with LIDAR mapping programs to provide detailed modeling of storm surge and sea level rise on most communities in the New Hampshire Seacoast. This information is in turn disseminated to local municipalities to help them in their adaptation planning.

“They have become a central tool as part of a much broader discussion on the regional level,” he said. “The maps get officials to understand the scope of the challenge and to begin planning.”

Meanwhile, said Diers at NHDES, the New England states are also planning regionally. “We coordinate well across the states and with the federal government, too, especially NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which is keenly interested in this issue,” he said.

LIDAR data is driving this effort, as well, he said. “It’s really revolutionized the way that we look at sea level rise and storm surges. We can be very precise. We don’t want communities to over protect,” he said, “but we also want them to be realistic.”

Public policy challenges

The governments of New Hampshire and Maine have up until now played largely an advisory role in sea level rise issues. People like Diers or employees at the Maine Coastal Program provide planning help to a variety of stakeholders from environmental organizations to municipalities.

It’s a role, said Diers, that’s not likely to change much in the future. Grant funding comes almost entirely from the federal government and, in these economic times, he thinks it’s unlikely that state government will step up funding in a significant way.

“We give money to emergencies. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a planning emergency,” he said. “That said, there’s a lot to do and we will do everything with what we have to help.”

The New Hampshire Legislature recently passed a bill that would form a sea level rise commission to study the issue and make policy recommendations to the Legislature.

State Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, sponsored the legislation, which was co-sponsored by state Sens. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton, and Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth.

“The fact is, there may be dire financial consequences” from storm surge and sea level rise,” Watters said. “Shouldn’t we plan wisely now?”

Federal funding is available for planning, particularly through NOAA, but it’s not sufficient to meet the fiscal challenge facing most coastal communities, said USM’s Sam Merrill.

“There are federal funds available for some things, and I think we’ll see them continue to take a role,” he said. But the grants tend to be small and are likely over time to become smaller, he said.

When it comes to federal disaster relief, funding is not expected to continue at current levels.

“It’s impossible for the federal government to come in and pay for everyone,” said Sowers.

Federal flood insurance is going to become insolvent at some point, he said, as more powerful storms damage buildings and infrastructure.

“Federal flood insurance programs aren’t supposed to lose money,” Lockman said. “Just like any insurance, the premiums are supposed to be greater than the outlay. But that’s changing. The usual way of doing things isn’t sustainable.”

That leaves it up to municipalities to bear the brunt of the cost of adaptation measures.

“The fact is, federal and state coffers are broke,” Merrill said. “Municipal government has to say, ‘We have to take this into our own hands.'”

Sowers agrees.

“The message I take away is that if communities understand the challenges they face, the ball is in their court to look after themselves,” he said.

But Diers is quick to say the world is not ending tomorrow.

“You plan now, and you set aside a little every year,” he said. “When we’re talking about a 100-year time frame, the whole idea is to talk about it now. If you’re planning to put in the same culvert you put in 30 years ago, you might want to rethink that. It’s that kind of thing.”

The fact is, said Diers and others, municipalities don’t have much of a choice. But UNH’s Wake said he understands there’s a psychological barrier to deal with, as well.

“It’s a big shift, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “If you really accept this is happening, it’s scary. Because if you accept it, you have to start thinking about what you’re going to do — to protect yourself, your family and the community.”


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