Matunuck Beach

Tim Faulkner: Projected sea-level rise looks scarier

Via ecoRI News (

A stitch in time saves nine. A cat has nine lives. Baseball legend Ted Williams wore No. 9. Unfortunately for Rhode Island, nine is also the new number for the feet of projected sea-level rise.

Just a few years ago, the upper estimate for sea-level rise was 3 feet. More recently, it was 6.6 feet. But a recent assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects sea-level rise to increase in Rhode Island by 9 feet, 10 inches by 2100.

“To put in perspective we’ve had 10 inches (of sea-level rise) during the last 90 years. We’re about to have 10 feet in the next 80 years,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Fugate made the remarks during a recent environmental business roundtable featuring the state’s top energy and environment officials: Fugate; Janet Coit, executive director of the Department of Environmental Management; and Carol Grant, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources.

Coit and Grant highlighted the positive trends in Rhode Island's “green economy,” such as growth in renewable energy and the fishing industry. Fugate spoke last and, referring to himself as the “Debbie Downer” of the meeting, straightaway delivered the bad news facing the state from climate change.

“I’ve been director here for 31 years and the numbers we are seeing are staggering to me,” Fugate said of the NOAA report. “The changes we are going to see to our shoreline are profound, dramatic, and there is going to be a lot of economic adjustment going forward."

The major upward revision in sea level-rise projections, he said, will be transformative to life in Rhode Island, particularly along the coastal region of Washington County and much of Bristol County and Warwick.

To drive the point home, Fugate showed photographs of severe beach erosion along Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown. The shoreline there has been eroding at a clip of 4 feet annually since the 1990s. Recently, the rate climbed to 8 feet a year. That level was calculated before NOAA released the latest projected increase in sea-level rise.

Higher seas, Fugate said, create a multiplier effect that intensifies coastal erosion and flooding. Tides and storm surges reach further inland. Climate change also produces stronger wind and rain events. Thus, a storm classified as a 50-year event can cause the same damage as a 100-year event, according to Fugate.

The recent NOAA report says the principal cause for higher seas is the melting of land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Since 2009, the region from Virginia north to the Canadian Maritime Provinces has experienced accelerated sea-level rise due to changing ocean currents in the Gulf Stream. NOAA expects that trend to continue.

According to the report, the impact of prolonged sea-level rise will be loss of life, damage to infrastructure and the built environment, permanent loss of land, ecological transformation of coastal wetlands and estuaries, and water-quality impairment.

Those impacts, Fugate said, are already here and being felt. He showed slides of storm drains flowing backwards and flooding parking lots during regular high tides, and buildings that are becoming islands. Coit noted that wetlands and marshes are essentially drowning in this higher water.

“The future is here now,” Fugate said. “It’s here and we are seeing profound changes.”

To combat climate change, coastal buildings are being elevated thanks to federal incentives. The CRMC also has permissive policies that allow for the rebuilding of sea walls damaged by these more forceful storms and accelerated erosion.

Several environmental engineers and municipal planners at the recent meeting raised questions about the need for policies and regulations to address threatened infrastructure, such as septic systems, utilities, and spoke about the risk of inland river flooding. Their queries suggested that the state is taking a piecemeal approach to a vast problem.

The environmental group Save The Bay has criticized an Army Corps of Engineers plan to provide funding to elevate homes along the Rhode Island coast from Westerly to Narragansett, R.I. Fugate said that plan has flaws, but endorses the concept as the best solution for protecting property owners.

Save The Bay, however, wants greater consideration given to migration away from the coast. Retreat from a receding shoreline, it argues, protects people, as well as the ecological health and resilience of the natural resource that defines the Ocean State.

“Are we going to elevate homes that can’t be reached because the roads are under water?” asked Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s policy director. “I think the state needs a long-term strategy about moving back from the coast.”

Hamblett portended that coastal retreat would greatly impact the real-estate market and present enormous challenges for policymakers and elected officials.

“But this is so big on so many levels that unless and until we start really seriously planning to move back out of harms way, we are going to inflict a lot of otherwise avoidable damage on ourselves,” Hamblett said.

Fugate and Coit said elevating buildings may not be the best option, but it's the only one currently with funding. If approved, it would provide about $60 million of federal relief money apportioned after Hurricane Sandy.

“Yes, the money would be better spent in another way,” Coit said. “Could we protect more land on the shore and in the flood plains? Could we help people move out all together through a buy-out program? Could we look at infrastructure that helps the whole public instead of the individual homeowner?”

Fugate said the problem is compounded by federal flood-insurance maps that created immense controversy in 2013, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency released inaccurate flood-zone maps. Those maps led to astronomically high insurance premiums for some and rampant confusion among others living on or near the water.

Fortunately, Fugate said, the CRMC and the University of Rhode Island have designed interactive maps forecasting the impacts of sea-level rise, coastal flooding and storm surge. The modeling behind those maps is helping remedy the flood-map problem. Nevertheless, Fugate encouraged anyone with property in a flood zone to buy flood insurance.

Coit said the state is in a good position to address sea-level rise and climate change by following the same model that led to the development of the Block Island Wind Farm. The Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) brought together federal, local and private stakeholders to craft a plan for mapping out public and private uses for offshore regions. CRMC is working on a similar Shoreline SAMP to address long-term coastal planning.

Coit said the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) is already addressing comprehensive climate-change planning for the state. The EC4 recently released an assessment of Rhode Island's greenhouse gas-emissions reduction plan. It’s now scrutinizing flooding at wastewater treatment facilities, among other threats from climate change.

“I think we are in a good place for Rhode Island to really look holistically at a resiliency and adaptation plan that takes into account all of the issues,” Coit said.

Most of the EC4’s funding comes from the Environmental Protection Agency. CRMC gets half of its budget from the Department of Commerce. But Coit, Grant and Fugate say President Trump’s hostility toward climate change won’t curtail state planning efforts, much less the realities of sea-level rise and global warming.

While the NOAA report doesn’t offer its own solutions, it concludes that sea-level rise is unrelenting.

“Even if society sharply reduces emissions in the coming decades, sea level will most likely continue to rise for centuries,” according to NOAA.

Tim Faulkner writes for ecoRI News.

Many Rhode Islanders should seek higher ground



for ecoRI News (

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) is expected to update the governor and General Assembly on its progress in May. Some of the information they will be presenting is both encouraging and worrisome.

ecoRI News reported this month that the state revised its sea level-rise estimates to 7 feet by 2100. The estimate also includes a projected increase of 2 feet by 2050.

James Boyd, coastal policy analyst for the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), presented a vivid image of what the revisions mean during the EC4’s Feb. 10 meeting. A photo taken during a moon tide Feb. 9 showed what a 2-foot increase looks like.

“This is monumental change on the Rhode Island landscape,” he said.

For now, higher “nuisance” tides are all already on the rise, Boyd said, occurring three to five times annually, rather than once or twice.

The new 7-foot estimate can be seen online through CRMC’s STORMTOOLS program. New features in the program show the effects of storm surges and flooding on individual properties across Rhode Island. Municipalities and developers can also look at the coastal climate impacts on commercial areas, and bridges and roads.

Jared Rhodes, chief of the Statewide Planning Program, said coastal communities in southern Rhode Island are largely embracing efforts to adapt to climate-change impacts. But the measures aren’t gaining traction with some cities and towns in upper Narragansett Bay, he said.

“From my perspective, many of the communities don’t see this as something that’s an urgent issue right now,” Rhodes said. “And I think that’s something we need to still keep pushing and find ways to help the municipalities apply the tools that have already been developed so that we can help them see that this is a real issue.”

Boyd said the increased frequency of powerful storms and nuisance flooding will likely draw attention to the need for communities to adapt. He noted that Warwick was chosen, along with Charlestown, for a pilot program that assigns numerical risk factors for climate impacts to all homes and businesses.

The program will be run by CRMC and funded with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another HUD grant will fund new flood mapping of the Pawtuxet River watershed. If successful, other watersheds will be mapped.

Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability, said STORMTOOLS may be useful for homeowners on Providence’s East Side, but likely won’t draw attention from renters, residents living in multi-family homes and those without the means to interact online.

The city’s sustainability plan focuses on transforming community centers into emergency shelters and cooling centers, and places for residents to interact. Rather than a small number of large shelters across the city, Bamberger said, “It’s better to have small spaces where (residents) know people and are comfortable there.”

Providence’s sustainability plan also aims to address the long-term resiliency of the Port of Providence and surrounding neighborhoods, including the Rhode Island Hospital area. The new flood maps show the port and Allens Avenue, through downtown, flooded by storm surge from a major hurricane.

The city’s commitment to the Compact of Mayors means Providence will set its own greenhouse gas-reduction targets and adopt a climate adaptation plan. By joining the compact, cities with similar risks share ideas for solving climate vulnerabilities.

Last year, Providence divested its pension investments from the 15 most polluting coal companies. A draft of land use and development plan is expected in April. It is expected to include progress reports on stormwater management, building codes and standards, and neighborhood risk assessments.

The state Department of Health (DOH) has made the most progress with climate adaptation efforts. Julia Gold, DOH’s climate-change program manager, has overseen several initiatives to identify and address public health impacts, such as heat and at-risk populations. Resolving climate risks related to senior citizens are ongoing, such as shelter-in-place planning and technical assistance for 30 elderly housing sites across the state.

Gold plans to make an educational film containing individual stories about climate risks such as flooding and the heat-island effect, and solutions. Gold said the film isn’t meant to scare people about the risks but “that we are presenting solutions. That positive change is occurring and there is hope.”
New aerial shoreline maps reveal that erosion is advancing quickly along the southern coast, from Westerly to North Kingstown. Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown is seeing the worst erosion, with an average of 5 feet of erosion annually between 2010 and 2014.

Boyd explained that erosion isn’t caused by sea-level rise but is the result of potent storms such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The $100,000 in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget for a new coastal resiliency center at the University of Rhode Island would offer technical guidance to municipalities in understanding the impacts of climate change. Risks to infrastructure, hospitals, drinking water and wastewater systems would be addressed.

Some of that guidance could recommend that coastal roads such as Matunuck Beach Road and Atlantic Avenue in Westerly be abandoned or shortened.

“Now you start looking at real damage costs so you can start making some intelligent choices whether you want to rebuild (after storms) in that location or relocate,” Boyd said.

Brown University researcher and lecturer Caroline Karp supports comprehensive planning to address the concept of no-build zones in areas frequently damaged by flooding and storms, as well as areas that are predicted to suffer from climate-change impacts. No-build, she said, involves denying building permits, and suspending town services and maintenance to roads and infrastructure in those areas.

Kendra Beaver, staff attorney for Save The Bay, said CRMC and the state Department of Environmental Management don’t appear to be considering climate impacts when issuing permits related to construction. Potential property owners, she said, are therefore not likely to know the risk of damage to homes and other structures.

“There has to be some obligation on the part of the permitting agencies to right now consider what you know about the impacts of climate change before you issue any permits at all,” Beaver said.

Karp said she also wants the EC4 to address climate impacts on vulnerable wildlife rather than just vulnerable infrastructure.

University of Rhode Island Prof. Peter August, chair of the EC4 Science and Technical Advisory Board, said his committee is concerned about this issue and is looking at monitoring changes in fauna and flora of ecosystems, as well as the impact of stormwater runoff on wildlife.