“WE ARE REALLY GOING TO HAVE TO THINK ABOUT THE IMPACT OF SEA-LEVEL RISE ON THE NAVY’S INFRASTRUCTURE…WE KNOW CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT ONLY COMING BUT IT’S HERE…”
Rear Admiral David Titley, US NAVY Task Force on Climate Change
We agree with Admiral Titley.
As architects and builders we are increasingly aware of the impact of climate change on Rhode Island’s coast. Rhode Island’s coastal communities are experiencing changes brought about by chronic events, primarily sea-level rise, and changes brought about by the increasing severity of catastrophic events, extreme weather ranging from hurricanes to nor’easters.
The question is not what we can do to forestall these changes. The question is how can we mitigate the damage to our homes and our communities. What can we do to adapt to sea-level rise and climate change?
Most Americans accept the science of climate change and believe that global warming poses a threat. We don’t need to see thousands of years of data and ice core analyses to understand that our environment is changing. We know change is happening, but we don’t know what to do about it.
For those of us who live and work along the coast the impacts of climate change and sea level rise are visible. The shoreline is eroding, the shape of the dunes is changing, and some areas experience routine flooding at high tide. Storms appear to be growing in strength and meteorologists tell us that the “hundred year storm” will become relatively common.
Climate change, the increasing severity of catastrophic storms and sea level rise affect more than the immediate coast. Inland communities experience loss of agricultural areas and natural habitats. Higher water tables, and possible salt water intrusion, can interfere with the water supply and septic systems. Homeowners in inland communities experience more routine flooding leading to higher insurance premiums and basement that are a lot more than “damp.”
Severe storms wreak havoc on our transportation infrastructure and states and municipalities struggle to repair roads and bridges. The U. S. Department of Transportation allocated $26,000,000 to Rhode Island to help cover the cost of repairs due to flooding in the spring of 2010. And, in southern Rhode Island, we still have bridges that are not repaired.
The October Storm of 2011 caused more than 3,000,000 people to lose power, with hundreds of thousands without electricity for more than a week. Thousands of trees were downed and state officials cancelled trick or treating, citing concerns about children navigating downed trees and live wires in the dark. As economist Robert Stavins points out in a NY Times article, a surprise storm is no proof of global warming, but “larger patterns of extreme storms and precipitation… support the [idea] of global warming…because warming oceans are sending more moisture into the air.”
Okay, we get that there is a problem, but what should we do? What can we do to adapt to climate change and to mitigate the damage to our property and our communities?
As individuals what we can do is limited. Make sure that the trees near our houses are trimmed – downed limbs were responsible for many of the power outages; keep objects that might be damaged by rising water off basement floors; check flashlights & batteries – we all know the drill. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. These actions are focused on mitigating the damage from catastrophic events – big storms.
Forward thinking communities can and should develop strategies for adapting to sea-level rise and climate change. Rhode Island is the Ocean State and both our culture and economy are intertwined with the coast and coastal communities. Tourism and hospitality is RI’s fourth largest industry, supporting more than 65,000 jobs and $5 billion in annual spending. The effects of climate change and the impact of sea-level rise will be felt statewide and perhaps most acutely in southern Rhode Island. Areas of vulnerability include:
• Beach erosion, damage to seaside properties, and potential negative impacts on tourism and recreation. How would the economy of southern RI be affected if we were no longer a tourist destination?
• Polluted drinking water as saltwater invades freshwater aquifers. We face similar threats to many coastal septic systems.
• Damaged transportation infrastructure and the need to elevate or relocate roads and bridges. At what point do we stop repairing roads that are repeatedly damaged?
• Loss of wetlands and wetland migration threatens both animal habitat and
The potential areas of vulnerability bridge all aspects of society including our homes, natural resources, infrastructure and economy. Identifying the specific threats and developing a plan that will guide us as we adapt to climate change is a daunting task and raises complex questions.
How do we balance government regulation and personal responsibility? To what degree should the government protect private property? Should individuals assume all the risks of living along the shore? Should the poor and elderly receive more government protection than the wealthy?
How do we evaluate the costs and benefits of rebuilding beaches and protecting wetlands? How would the local economy be impacted if we were less attractive as a tourist destination?
Developing a plan to mitigate the damage brought about by climate change and sea-level rise will require engaging all stakeholders — citizens, businesses, and government. We need to raise awareness of the effects of climate change and summon the social and political will to develop and implement a course of action.