Annual Whitehouse Forum Tackles Climate Change

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Strategies for tackling the challenges of a rapidly warming planet were recently delivered from a range of perspectives at the fifth annual Rhode Island Energy & Environmental Leaders Day held at the Rhode Island Convention Center. This annual forum gives Rhode Island organizations a chance to engage with federal officials making policy in Washington, D.C.

“Climate change is perhaps the most difficult, complex and necessary issue for us to face environmentally in this country and elsewhere that any of us as a species have ever had to face,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, one of three speakers for the event, said, underscoring both the health risks, such as chronic asthma, and economic costs.

Addressing a Sept. 5 audience of close to 250 representatives of environmental initiatives across the region, McCarthy championed the EPA’s newest Clean Air Plan for cutting emissions from power plants as a proposal that sets standard and puts states at the forefront of crafting ways to reduce carbon pollution. She said this new policy best serves local needs while creating economic opportunities close to home.

“The challenge is that everybody needs to play,” McCarthy said.

Considering the ocean side of the environmental equation, famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, another of the day’s speakers, listed imminent threats, from major decline of fish stocks around the world — cod, tuna and sharks — to the collapse of seagrass meadows and corral reefs.

“Our life-support system is currently at risk,” she said. “The good news is we know it’s happening. We can plan the future based on knowledge.”

Earle called for establishing safe havens, much like national parks, to protect flourishing aquaculture.

With Rhode Island already at the national forefront of cleaner air and water initiatives, a roundtable forum made up of leaders of public and private environmental agencies gave updates on recent developments in areas from energy-efficient technologies and economic incentives to risk assessment and responsible use of available resources.

Experts speaking about the cost end of the issue noted that tax incentives and discounts at purchase are beginning to make technologies, from solar panels to electric cars, more affordable. Creating and servicing new green infrastructure and energy-efficient technologies will bring jobs to bolster economic development at all levels, the panelists predicted.

Rhode Island, however, is less prepared to handle the increasing volume of stormwater runoff, according to officials. Monitoring headwaters and feeder streams, as well as responsible wastewater management, are key to reducing pollutants and controlling flooding and erosion. Standards and measures are in the works to calculate future risk and to determine where and how to build a resilient barrier to storm surges.

Convened by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., this annual environmental conference provides a forum for dialog across a range of stakeholders. Afternoon breakout sessions considered more in-depth ways of taking advantage of economic opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and ways to create sustainable and resilient cities and towns, leverage government funding and encourage investment from businesses.


Northeast Hurricane Modeling Outdated

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

URI professor of oceanography Isaac Ginis. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)NARRAGANSETT — Hurricanes bound for New England will get about 10 percent more powerful by 2100, but the state lacks the tools to assess their impacts, according to University of Rhode Island professor Isaac Ginis.

Hurricanes are powered by warm water, and the predicted increase in ocean temperatures caused by climate change is expected to make hurricane season longer and the storms stronger in the years ahead.

“Hurricanes love warm water,” Ginis said during a July 24 climate change seminar at the University of Rhode Island.

Numerous studies and models suggest the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes are expected to increase by 81 percent, while the volume of rainfall is expected to increase 20 percent by 2100, Ginis said.

However, a key current modeling method used to measure the impacts of hurricanes and set flood insurance maps is outdated, he said. The federal Hazus model mostly relies on ocean temperatures to predict damage on land. But, Ginis said, this modeling leaves out critical atmospheric factors that hurricanes encounter as they approach New England, such as cold fronts and the jet stream.

These local factors can make hurricanes more powerful as they take on the characteristics of a nor’easter, he said. “That’s why they often gain energy and intensify.”

As hybrid storms, or extra-tropical storms, hurricanes in northern regions produce differences in rainfall, wind speed and height of storm surge.

Earlier this month, Hurricane Arthur was considered benign as it passed to the east of New England, but the storm strengthened as it headed north along the Gulf Stream and encountered new atmospheric conditions. Arthur then inflicted significant damage when it made landfall in Canada’s maritime provinces, with more rain and higher winds than expected.

“We’re lucky the storm did not undergo extra-tropical transition when it was close to Rhode Island,” Ginis said.

Another problem with current hurricane forecasting is the public and media fixation on the 1-5 ranking system assigned to measure hurricane strength, he said. The ranking is primarily based on wind speeds but leaves out other critical factors, such the height of water within a hurricane. Water height determines the storm surge and influences coastal and inland flooding, two factors that caused major damage in hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

“Scientists and the forecasters hate this scale," Ginis said. "It really does not represent the threat (from hurricanes)."

As an alternative, the National Hurricane Center is experimenting with detailed real-time models that monitor water height, storm surge and flooding.

Hurricane forecasting and planning, however, used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state planners relies on a modeling system called SLOSH (sea, lake and overland surges from hurricanes). SLOSH modeling began in the 1960s and doesn’t take into account atmosheric and geographic factors that are common to the Northeast during hurricanes.

“We do need a more robust threat and risk analysis in Rhode Island,” Ginis said.

In order to create a better hurricane predictor, Ginis is working with URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography on a multi-model system that uses 3-D simulations, as well as climate-change assumptions, such as sea-level rise, to gauge atmospheric and oceanic conditions of approaching storms. This multi-model approach also would measure the impacts of hurricane after they pass.

“If you are just looking at only one model you’re prone to make several significant errors in your assessments,” he said.

This research contributes to two programs sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that aim to improve hurricane tracking, forecasting and understanding of potential impacts. The URI group is also offering its expertise to the state Beach SAMP project to help improve hurricane risk analysis in Rhode Island.

Grover Fugate, director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the agency overseeing the Beach SAMP, said having this information helps cities and town better understand the risks and prepare. 

“We really need to start thinking about these practices and how we put those in proactively, so that we can act when the storm comes,” Fugate said.


Experts Say Expect More Rain and Flooding

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — The shoreline is retreating and it won’t take a big storm or hurricane to severely damage structures along the coast, according to David Vallee, the hydrologist-in-charge at the Northeast River Forecast Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Vallee was one of two speakers at a recent Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association discussion entitled “Adapting the Watershed” and held at Chariho Middle School.

He noted that 2012 Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rhode Island coast, leveling dunes and destroying property, and the October storm wasn’t even a Category 3 or 4 hurricane. It was “just” a severe storm with a “massive wave field” and 4.5-foot storm surge, he said.

Vallee has gathered data that shows that the intensity of rainfall has increased during the past 30 years, and that there are fewer droughts. That has held to higher water levels in rivers, and combined with urbanization of the floodplains, has increased the frequency and severity of flooding.

For example, Vallee noted that the Scituate Reservoir was designed in the 1920s to be filled by June 1. The reservoir now fills around March 1, he said, and the excess flows into the North Branch Pawtuxet River.

The common theme during the past decade has been slow-moving weather systems with multiple events in succession before a major storm. Each of these type storms is being fed by a tropical connection, Vallee said.

Global warming is changing the jet stream, he said. He said the Northeast is losing its east-to-west flow of weather systems, and there is now more north-to-south flows. Rhode Island also is seeing a temperature increase of about 1 degree every 50 years, according to data collected at T.F. Green Airport.

Vallee said summers in Rhode Island are getting hotter, more akin to the weather in New Jersey.

And as expected, water levels are changing.

“All three (gauge) locations on the Pawcatuck River ... indicate an increase in flooding,” Vallee said. “Wood River Junction is the smallest of the bunch but all three locations are showing an increase based on our examining the number of floods over the period of record, which dates to between 1929 and 1940 or so.

“The reason the basin isn’t seeing the rate of increase as some others, we hypothesize, may have to do with the amount of natural storage and still undeveloped land allowing for the basin to handle additional rains and wetter conditions, but the Wood River and the Pawcatuck at Westerly have experienced a more substantial increase.”

In years to come, Vallee said there will be many businesses and homes along the Pawcatuck River affected by the rise in sea level and related flooding.

“Adapt or retreat,” he said, noting that in time there will not be a choice. He said Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut will not survive.

“Atlantic Avenue is tremendously vulnerable because of sea-level rise and the fact that a Category 3 hurricane will be capable of producing surge in the range of 8 to 12 feet above that increase in sea level,” Vallee said. “Sandy produced a 4- to 4.5-foot surge, one-half to one-third of what this region will see again. Most of the houses lack protection to withstand such a strike.

“Some places don’t belong there any more. But it gets back to the property tax base. What do you do? How do you convince people to leave? It’s only a matter of time before the big hurricanes come through.”

He cited one example of development adapting to a changing climate: the redevelopment of the former Royal Mill Complex in Warwick on the Pawtuxet River. In that case the bottom two floors were used for parking. That allows the flow of water underneath the structure instead of putting living space in danger of being flooded.

Keeping lookout
Vallee’s job is to develop forecasts and issue flood warnings at least five days in advance. His job is made easier by the river gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The other speaker was Michelle Burnett, a state floodplain coordinator with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. She spoke about flood insurance, storm preparations and planning, and her agency’s role in handling federal grants in the aftermath of disasters.

The R.I. Emergency Management Agency is currently updating state evacuation plans. The agency has oversight on more than 600 dams, and held its annual hurricane and preparedness conference June 20 at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Hurricane season began June 1.

One of the biggest components of her agency is mitigation, such as in the case of coastal development, urging people to build better and smarter. One of those ways is to elevate coastal homes on pilings at least 15 feet high, with breakaway walls at ground level to allow water to flow underneath.

She said several homes in Misquamicut are now being raised in this manner. The problem, she said, is that if not all the homes are raised, one could get washed off its foundation and damage other structures.

Burnett also noted that Rhode Island has suffered an unprecedented four federal disaster declarations in four straight years, beginning with the flooding in March 2010, tropical storm Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and a severe winter storm in 2013.

Burnett said climate change permeates everything her agency is doing. “It will exacerbate all of the planning, because it effects storms, hurricanes and flooding,” she said.

Her message to the audience was to be prepared for the next emergency, whether that be by buying flood insurance, creating a storm kit that includes food, medicine and water, or just making a plan regarding what you will do if you have to evacuate or get separated from loved ones.


Rare Visit: Arthur Arrived Early in Hurricane Season

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Hurricane Arthur wasn’t much of a storm by the time it reached coastal New England. Top winds barely hit 50 mph, and most of the damage came in the form of canceled Fourth of July celebrations.

New Bedford, Mass., got the worst of the wet weather, with more than 8 inches of rain. Little Compton endured the most rain in Rhode Island, with 4.4 inches. Much of Connecticut enjoyed less than an inch.

Beaches saw little in the way of a storm surge, and offshore waves in New England waters measured between 10 and 11 feet. By comparison, offshore waves from hurricanes Sandy and Irene reached about 30 feet.

A surprising statistic might be the time of year for the hurricane. The first named hurricane of the season on average arrives around Aug. 10. According to the National Hurricane Center, Arthur was the earliest hurricane to make landfall in North Carolina since records began in 1851. It’s only the eighth hurricane to have impacted New England in July since 1900, according to the National Weather Service.

Hurricane Arthur also was unusual because it originated off the east coast of Florida. While most hurricanes form in the Caribbean or off the west coast of Africa.

As far as a link to climate change, the National Climate Assessment says an early storm isn’t necessarily evidence of global warming. Since the early 1980s, the intensity, frequency and duration of hurricanes have increased in the North Atlantic. This trend is expected to continue as the oceans warm. Studies are looking at the relationship between higher temperatures and the number of hurricanes that make landfall.

Precipitation is projected to increase by 20 percent near the center of hurricanes. But Arthur wasn’t out of the ordinary for its rainfall, according to Dennis Feltgen, National Hurricane Center spokesman. “(The rain) was exactly what was forecasted, exactly what was expected, and exactly what occurred," he said.

Overall, experts say 2014 is projected to be a light year for hurricanes, as El Nino conditions in the Pacific Ocean subdue storm activity in the Atlantic. Cooler water temperatures in the Caribbean also suggest fewer storms.

Nevertheless, conditions still exist for hurricanes similar to Arthur, said Lenny Giuliano, state meteorologist and climatologist for Rhode Island. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again this year or next year,” he said.


Building On Borrowed Time

Ocean Mist, the waterfront bar in Matunuck, and many of the buildings along the popular beach are losing land to a rising sea. (©John Supancic/for R.I. Sea Grant)How long can we continue to live on the coast? Depends on how much we want to spend and the amount of damage we want to cause.

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state, and its 420 miles of coastline are crowded with homes and businesses, residents and tourists. The increasing rate of erosion and sea-level rise, and the effects of coastal storms and flooding, are making the state’s coastal landscape ever smaller.

For those who think that engineering solutions will hold back the sea, Robert Fairbanks, a Rhode Island-based engineer who designs and builds hard structures to protect coastal properties, has some bad news.

“Everything is temporary,” he said. Fairbanks explained that when built correctly, barriers such as seawalls, revetments or even dunes can protect an area for an extended period of time, but not indefinitely. “It’s always an educational process explaining to a homeowner who just spent a million dollars and now thinks they’re completely protected forever. I explain to them, that’s not the way Mother Nature works.”

While hurricanes and storms such as Sandy can move sand from one place to another — Sandy alone stripped some 1,600 tons of sand away from Narragansett Town Beach and dumped about 18,000 tons onto Atlantic Avenue in Westerly — ultimately, the state is losing land over time. Despite seawall construction, beach renourishment and other measures, Rhode Island’s coastline has lost nearly 300 feet of beach in just 50 years.

This has been felt most acutely along the more exposed southern shoreline in communities from Point Judith to Westerly. Matunuck, Misquamicut and South Kingstown Town Beach have lost about 400 feet of beach combined in the past 40 years.

Narragansett’s seawall — a mile-long, steel sheet-pile seawall capped with  concrete — has protected downtown Narragansett since 1933, and Newport’s Cliff Walk has endured since the end of the 19th century. Though they have weathered many storms, they were both damaged heavily by Sandy, and required millions of dollars in repairs.

Efforts are underway to restore these existing structures and others, as well as to rebuild beaches, an undertaking funded in part by the $61.4 million Rhode Island received from federal disaster relief programs to help the state recover from Sandy’s October 2012 visit. And many residents and businesses are demanding the right to build new seawalls despite strict permitting regulations that largely prohibit them in many areas.

These efforts illustrate the challenges in educating people about the risks of coastal living. Dan Goulet, engineer at the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state agency responsible for protecting coastal resources, likened the issue to the failed bank bailouts in 2008, and said that coastal communities need long-term solutions that will require a different way of thinking for how people live on the coast instead of continually investing in infrastructure that doesn’t work.

“It’s risky to live on the coast and people don’t get it,” he said, talking about the many oceanfront properties owned by seasonal residents. “They come in the summer and it’s wonderful, but they don’t see when the ocean is lapping at their property.”

Rhode Island is one of the few states with a near-ban on construction of new hard shoreline protection structures despite the strong push to build. With the exception of pre-exisiting structures, this ban is primarily along Rhode Island’s southern shore in waters classified by CRMC as a Type 1, which abut natural, undisturbed shorelines. The south shore is also exposed to high wave energy, flooding and erosion.

CRMC officials say that new construction is banned for all Type 1 waters to protect natural-habitat sand because such structures interfere with the natural transportation of sediment and accelerate erosion. Pre-existing structures can be maintained but aren’t permitted to expand.

“We’re very concerned about sediment supply and have a limited supply on the south coast,” said Grover Fugate, CRMC’s executive director. “Seawalls block the supply, and that has downstream impacts on beaches. You can have a wall or a beach, but you can’t have both.”

Erosion is a process, not a problem, and we can’t stop it from happening. (R.I. Sea Grant)Relentless wave energy
Seawalls are vertical structures made of concrete or timber, and are driven into the ground to deflect oncoming waves. This deflected wave force, however, has to go somewhere and is generally pushed back out. This accelerates erosion in front of the wall, or to the sides, causing scouring to the outside edges and damaging adjacent properties, and ultimately eroding behind the wall and rendering it useless. Revetments are engineered rock walls, but they follow the natural slope of the beach to break up wave energy and minimize erosion impacts. However, they can still pose scouring problems, and any beach in front of them will be eroded away.

This is the case in Matunuck, where a 200-foot-long steel sheet-pile seawall was approved to protect a portion of Matunuck Beach Road. This proposed structure would be an exception, to protect public health and safety, since the road is the only access to 250 homes, and protects the water supply for 1,600 homes. The total estimated cost of this project is $1.38 million, which would be funded by the state Department of Transportation.

“I’m working with South Kingstown to protect Matunuck Beach Road, because that area has eroded right to the edge of the road,” Fairbanks said. “We’ve (designed) to limit erosion at the wall by not only using a steel sheet-pile structure buried about eight feet, but also burying stone up against it so if we do lose the sand on top, the stone will be exposed. This will help stop the erosion so it won’t continue to dig the hole deeper and deeper. When the storm is over you can go back in and replace the sand, to recreate the area.”

There was opposition to the town’s original plan, which called for the wall to extend the length of the entire road. Janet Freedman, coastal geologist at CRMC, said construction will not go past the existing revetment at the Matunuck Trailer Association property on Matunuck Beach Road so as not to compromise local businesses and homes beyond. This construction, however, comes at the expense of keeping a beach in favor of protecting the road.

Not only can seawalls accelerate erosion, they can also harm the structures they are intended to protect when they aren’t built adequately to withstand wave forces and instead create harmful debris. The Andrea Hotel, a landmark in Misquamicut for nearly a century, which ultimately had to be torn down and rebuilt because of flooding damage, also suffered structural damage from seawall debris during Sandy.

“The stones were not the correct size and were like flying torpedoes,” said Michelle Carnevale, Rhode Island Sea Grant and Coastal Resources Center extension specialist, who is working with Fugate on the Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) — a management plan being developed to help coastal communities and homeowners adapt to sea-level rise, flooding and erosion.

She noted that part of the problem was that the wall was under-designed because it predated CRMC regulations. The damage that was done during Sandy to the Andrea Hotel shows that an undersize seawall can do as much, or more damage, as no seawall at all, Fugate said.

Fairbanks believes there’s a stigma against seawalls, and other hard structures, as a result of poor siting and construction.

“This is where seawalls have gotten a black eye,” he said. “People have gone in places and built things with out taking into account what effect their structure was going to have on the adjacent property.”

Fairbanks said that when built correctly, hard structures can be effective. Each structure must be designed and built to withstand the wave energy expected at its location. Structures need to withstand up to tens of thousands of pounds of force from a breaking wave during a storm. Many such structures are sloped with an uneven surface designed to reduce wave-energy impact.

“I have to understand how big the waves are during storms in order to be able to know what type of structure to use, and what it should look like height, width, material, slope,” said Fairbanks, explaining that he designs for the so-called 100-year storm, or the storm with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year, utilizing floodplain maps and studies as recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The larger the waves anticipated at a given site, the more expensive the structure. “A 27 percent increase in wave height doubles the amount of force, and that’s all cost,” Fairbanks said.

Even designing seawalls to withstand a 100-year storm may not provide the protection the name implies. First, new climate research suggests that such storms may now have a 5 percent or 10 percent chance of happening in any given year. Second, the coastal zone, subject to wave action, is determined on federal floodplain maps according to a set of variables that, for Rhode Island, don’t adequately represent true flooding risk, according to Fairbanks, Fugate, and Freedman. Part of the problem is that these new maps fail to incorporate flood marks from storms such as Sandy.

“We know they’re not accurate because we know we’ve flooded more than what they have mapped. There’s physical evidence,” Freedman said. “We know the Sandy waves were higher than the max wave they modeled for this area.”

The new maps, according to Jessica Stimson, floodplain mapping coordinator for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, incorporate the past 20 years of data. Work on the maps began in 2009, and was completed prior to Sandy.

Still, she said that after Sandy, federal contractors did survey the coastline and felt the data collected didn’t indicate a need to re-delineate the maps.

Fairbanks said he doesn’t trust the maps, and that their accuracy, or lack of it, has huge implications for the effectiveness of engineered structures if they aren’t built to withstand actual conditions. Freedman said this could also hurt homeowners who believe they are outside the flood zone and yet may find their properties flooded during a major storm.

Even when an adequate seawall, or other structure is built, the initial construction expenses are only the beginning — maintenance accounts for a huge part of the overall cost, Fairbanks said. Structures will need repairs from the normal wear and tear of the ocean, as well as damages from storms, and dunes will need to be restored and replanted. Many state beaches have maintenance funds incorporated into their budgets, and dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, but not all homeowners have the resources to maintain private shoreline protection over time.

Old timber and stone groins first installed in Buttonwoods, Warwick, in 1962, for example, weren’t properly maintained and ultimately accelerated erosion in the area, according to Fairbanks.

Public access can't be denied
The potential damages to the shoreline aren’t the only reason CRMC places strict regulations on construction of new hard structures. Those structures can also block public access to the shoreline, which begins at the high-tide mark.

“One thing about shoreline structures is that you lose public access,” Freedman said. “As that beach moves, you protect your house, but the public loses that right of access to the shore, and why should we?”

Property that’s been eroded can’t be reclaimed and there is no compensation for homeowners. This means as the water rises, it’s taking what used to be private land and turning it into public trust shoreline.

“The dry is becoming wet, and public property is becoming bigger, encroaching on private property,” said Susan Farady, former director of the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University. “The big issue here is private versus public rights.”

Farady said the dilemma about building structures involves how to weigh the right to protect private property against the public trust to access resources, and also determining who is responsible for the damages incurred to the surrounding properties resulting from a structure. This is one of the many issues the Beach SAMP will address.

“We base our management and property interests on a set of conditions that we’ve assumed are going to be relatively stable, which we know is clearly not the case,” Farady said. “Water is going to do what water is going to do. The issue isn’t the ocean. It’s our responses and abilities to manage our own actions.”

Current management of coastal resources inRhode Island is framed around balancing all interests along the coast but not at the expense of public access.

“We try to take emotion out of it and be pragmatic to balance it for everybody because you’ve got fishermen, people that just want to walk down the beach, the health of the beach itself, and nobody likes to be told to let (their homes) fall in the ocean. That’s tough,” CRMC’s Goulet said.

Many residents in Matunuck are indeed struggling with their limited options, and have petitioned for the shoreline there to be reclassified as manmade in order to allow hard structures. They also have requested that the existing stone revetment be extended, or that the approved seawall be moved seaward to protect waterfront properties. Although these requests have been denied in order to preserve the coastal environment and public access to the shoreline, there are still options remaining, including soft solutions such as planting vegetation and/or non-permanent structures, and installing coir logs that are biodegradable erosion-prevention logs made from coconut fiber to aid in the stabilization and revegetation of hillsides, banks and shorelines prone to erosion.

These methods, however, may not always be effective in such exposed areas, Fairbanks said.

“There’s a general thought that we can go to soft solutions,” he said, claiming that in high-energy areas like Matunuck the beach isn’t wide enough to disperse the energy coming from the ocean. “We just don’t have that kind of width here.”

For coastal headlands in Misquamicut and Matunuck, CRMC has approved non-permanent experimental erosion control measures, such as marine mattresses that are rock-filled containers intended to slow or abate erosion without the damages inflicted by seawalls.

While some of these methods have been effective in other areas around the country, it’s unclear how they will fare on Rhode Island’s coast.

As the results of the experimental measures being undertaken in Matunuck and Miquamicut become more apparent, more options for property owners may become viable. Nevertheless, both coastal engineers and resource managers say that all measures are just buying time.

The question is, how much?

This story was originally published in the spring/summer 2014 edition of the Rhode Island Sea Grant publication 41º North.


Climate Change Taking Toll On Matunuck Beach

Story and photos by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — As summer gets underway in the popular Matunuck Beach area, much of the shoreline is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy's 2012 visit, and ongoing erosion. Since 1951, the beach has migrated some 300 feet inland, and erosion and coastal flooding accelerated after a spate of storms that began in 2010.

Along a mile stretch of waterfront, several landmarks and summer destinations are taking different approaches to adapting to the problems brought on by a changing climate.

The owner of the last of the iconic Browning cottage has dug in, moved back and built a wall of sand.The Browning cottage. The owner of the remaining iconic summer home and carriage house has dug in — and back — since Sandy. The home was one of five large Queen Anne shingle-style summer homes built hundreds of feet from the beach in 1900. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 wiped out several of the large structures.

Increasing beach erosion since the 1970s prompted the owners to move the buildings 50 feet inland. Damage from Sandy led to the demolition of two of the remaining cottages.

Since the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) issued an emergency building permit in 2013, the last home has been pushed back 35 feet, a basement removed and the home elevated atop 16-foot columns made of cement and steel. A 4,500-gallon holding tank was installed in place of a septic system.

A second permit allowed construction of a barrier dune around the buildings. The dune is fortified with sandbags wrapped in natural-fiber logs. The dune touches the edge of the high-tide marker. The owner hopes the home will last 10 more years.

Several summer homes at Roy Carpenter’s Beach have moved from the beachfront to the last row of homes near a cornfield.Roy Carpenter’s summer homes. For the first time since 1976, the Fourth of July fireworks display has been canceled. The fire marshal denied a permit because the beach is no longer wide enough to offer a safe distance from the homes.

The former seasonal fishing camp populated with tents and collapsible cottages has evolved into a tight-knit beach community of 377 tiny homes. Most have about 500 square feet of space and rest on cinderblocks. The homes lack septic systems, so residents rely on communal bathrooms or compostable toilets.

A parking lot and a wide beach once provided an ample buffer from Block Island Sound, but erosion has brought the beach to the doorstep of many homes and has caused flooding in the interior of the dense housing development.

Superstorm Sandy washed away three homes from the front row of cottages. Several others were demolished because of structural damage. Farmland behind the 20-odd rows of homes is available to relocate structures from the edge of the beach. Before Sandy, plans were underway to move 28 homes. Of the 20 remaining, four were relocated to the back row this spring.

“We’re trying to find the best balance between nature, humans and everything,” said Rob Thoresen, great-grandson of Roy Carpenter and co-owner of the property.

A septic leaching field is being built under the future site of the town's beach pavilion.Town Beach. A site is being prepared for a “managed retreat” of the public beach pavilion.

Since the 1990s, waves and flooding have eaten away at manmade and natural structures. Storms have destroyed a row of protective sand dunes and a boardwalk. Sandy took out a large seating area at the front of the pavilion and sea-level rise threatens the entire structure.

After this summer, the pavilion will be relocated some 300 feet inland. Currently, construction of a leaching field is underway to manage wastewater.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is paying $300,000 of the $400,000 project.

“Hopefully, the pavilion will be standing for another 25 to 50 years,” said Terry Murphy, the town’s director of leisure services.

The Ocean Mist fortified its foundation this spring. The owner is contesting a new wall planned for beside the building.Ocean Mist. This bar and nightclub is ground zero for the climate-change and property-rights policy struggle in Rhode Island. The structure sits between the ocean and a wall of stone and sod. At high tide, water runs underneath the wood pilings that support the building.

Owner Kevin Finnegan recently lost a legal battle to prevent construction of a sheet-pile wall that, if built, will sit next to his building. The town intends to install the wall in October to protect a road that provides access to several businesses and residences in the beach community. Finnegan believes the wall will deflect incoming waves toward his building. This spring he installed wooden planks under Ocean Mist to reinforce its foundation.

When completed, most of the wall will be buried, with a 3-foot cement cap above ground. The barrier will resemble the cement wall at Narragansett Beach.

The proposed 202-foot sheet-pile wall is itself a controversy. The CRMC approved construction in 2012 after the board reversed an original decision to deny it. The wall is expected to exacerbate erosion along exposed portions of the beach, much like an existing manmade stone wall, called a revetment, that lies to the west of Ocean Mist. The project underscores the debate between trying to protect property and letting nature run its course.

Regardless of what’s built to prevent further damage, the shoreline is likely to move another 300 feet inland by the end of the century, according to Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director. “Nothing is going to work in the long run, but some of (the fixes) are going to buy you more time," he said.


Sea-Level Rise Drawing a New Ocean State

This Roy Carpenter’s Beach cottage survived Hurricane Irene in 2011 but with a severely eroded bluff. The cottage and the land under it were lost a year later during Superstorm Sandy. (©Kathie Florsheim)Coastline we celebrate is receding right before our eyes

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM/ecoRI News contributor

This Saturday (June 21) will mark the official beginning of summer in New England, and the delicious rituals that we associate with the season — walks on the beach, collecting shells and special stones, rummaging through tide pools, jumping waves, barbecues.

Many of us celebrate the season living in or visiting the numerous cottage communities along our shore. Cottage life is alive and well, as are the casual, easy friendships that have developed over generations in these quirky places we call home, from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Yet we are watching as the coastline we celebrate recedes, and wishing beyond reality that weren’t the case.

Typically, these places have weathered storm damage, erosion and, now, a retreating shore. Roy Carpenter’s Beach in Matunuck is but one example of the cycle of damage and reconstruction that has become part of life on the Rhode Island shore. I refer to Roy’s in particular because of my familiarity with the place, which is the result of photographing there since 2004.

In the most recent assault at Roy’s, Superstorm Sandy took three cottages and the land under them out to sea, and damaged a bunch more so badly they had to be demolished. Of those cottages on the shore that survived, a number are being relocated further from the water, placed on cement pilings. Cottages on round, cement stilts. There is even some new construction proceeding in the same area.

All of this is a testament, above all, to hope. Hope that the storm we all fear doesn’t occur any time soon; hope that these cottages are far enough from the water to survive if the worst happens. Hope that the community, known to many of us as one that seems immutable, safe in our memories as an ever-present reassurance, proves that we can continue to live on or near the water.

Although this Roy Carpenter’s Beach cottage was badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, it was saved. That December, it was moved to the corn field on the west side of the property, where it sat on large cement blocks for 18 months. It was moved to its current location several weeks ago. It now sits on cement pilings in a corn field on the east side of the property. The cottage has been home to the same family since the 1950s. (©Kathie Florsheim)Yet there are reminders that living on hope has limits. The general store at Roy’s was moved back 100 feet from the shore after the fall storms, in the winter of 2005-06. Recently, when I visited Roy’s, I walked off the front steps of the store, directly onto the beach. That means coastal retreat in eight years has been about 100 feet. Compare that with the coastal retreat, in the same location, of 93 feet, lost between 1939 and 2006.

We are known as the Ocean State. A lot of our history as a state has taken place along the coast, as has a great deal of commerce, from ship building to fishing to sail making and tourism. Most of us who live here have a personal relationship with the coastline. Sea-level rise, however, is reconfiguring our coastline and very possibly, our relationship to it.

That relationship was nurtured by generations past, born of both nostalgia and familiarity, interwoven with our work and leisure, and above all was responsible for an enormous amount of both our national and regional economies. For all the things we will lose, and there are many, we nonetheless need to re-imagine the shore, not as a threat, but yet again, as an asset. As we watch the water rise and our shore retreat, it is time for us as a community to consider how we will preserve our rich, productive relationship with the coast.

Although, ideally we would stop building in flood zones, that is unlikely to happen. Towns and cities get their greatest tax revenue from waterfront property. We could, however, require that buildings in flood zones establish an escrow account equal to the value of the structure. That money would be used to clean up the remains of these structures were they destroyed in a coastal storm.

We also can build resilience into new structures, on and off the coastline, by using the increasing body of knowledge about how to construct our buildings to be resistant to storm damage. Our building regulations should require that kind of construction, for new and existing structures, wherever they are situated. The benefits of doing so, in the long run, will outweigh the cost.

In areas where sea-level rise and storm damage have wiped the coast clean, we need to consider how that property could be allocated for public use, with open access, just as Napatree Point was so designated after the 1938 hurricane.

We can both prepare for the inevitable, sensibly, while simultaneously enjoying every last bit of time we have living as we now do. Our challenge is to revel in the moment, savor the pleasure we get from our existing shoreline and way of life, while recognizing that it’s in flux, probably changing faster than anyone had anticipated, and concurrently plan for the future.


Study: Solutions to Climate Change Create Jobs

By ecoRI News staff

Sea-level rise, storm surges, flooding and other local impacts of climate change underscore the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A new study has found that a fee on carbon pollution can reduce those emissions while also adding jobs.

The recently released report entitled “The Economic, Climate, Fiscal, Power and Demographic Impact of a National Fee-and-Dividend Carbon Tax” was commissioned by the nonprofit Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). Prepared by Regional Economic Models Inc. (REMI), this study examined the nationwide economic impact of a steadily rising fee on carbon pollution that returns 100 percent of the revenue to households.

The report shows such a fee will add 2.1 million jobs over 10 years while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 33 percent. Some 100,000 of those jobs would be added in New England, according to the report.

The fee would start at $10 a ton, increasing $10 a ton annually, and is based on the carbon content of the fossil fuel. Revenue from the fee would be returned to households in equal shares as direct payments. In addition to jobs creation, the report finds that carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 33 percent by 2025, and 52 percent by 2035.

Since electricity generation from coal could be phased out by 2025, air quality would improve as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants were reduced.

There also would be other important results, according to report. For example, rebates would return nearly $400 billion to households — or nearly $300 a month for a family of four. The impact to the total cost of living is less than 3 percent from the baseline, and gross domestic product (GDP) increases between $80 billion and $90 billion, according to the report.

Electricity prices peak in 2026, and then start to decrease, according to the report.

Local members of the Rhode Island Citizens Climate Lobby chapter will travel to Washington, D.C. this month to meet with members of Congress to present the study.

“What this study shows is that by giving the revenue back to the people, a carbon fee and dividend will actually stimulate the economy,” said Mark Reynolds, CCL’s executive director. “The big knock on a carbon fee has been that it would kill jobs. That assumption is now blown out of the water.”

Last month, the National Climate Assessment reported that the impact of climate change is already being felt across the nation. According to the assessment, the Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other U.S. region.

“The situation in Rhode Island will get much worse if we fail to curb our carbon dioxide emissions,” said Jamestown resident Mary Jane Sorrentino, one of the co-leaders of the Rhode Island chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby. “We don’t have to make a choice between protecting the climate and protecting jobs. This study shows we can do both, by enacting a fee on carbon pollution and returning the money back to households.”


Brown Professor Writes Plan to Share Carbon Burden

By ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Climate change is an issue of urgent importance, but for two decades, the international community has been unable to agree on a coordinated way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a piece published in the June issue of Nature Climate Change, J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, proposes a four-step compromise toward emissions reduction that offers “effectiveness, feasibility and fairness.”

The proposal comes as another major United Nations meeting on climate change approaches.

J. Timmons Roberts“We face a major deadline in December of 2015 for a deal to be agreed on by the parties of the global United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” Roberts said. “Either to get things moving toward that meeting or as a way to adequately address the issue afterward, this approach is practical, fresh and fair.”

The proposal, which was co-authored by Marco Grasso of the Universitá Milano-Bicocca, is made up of four core elements for sharing the burden of carbon reductions. The analysis is based on a carbon budget of 420 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between 2012 and 2050.

A successful approach, they write, must take into account both developing and developed countries without penalizing any economy disproportionately, while also proposing an equitable way to share the burden of emission reductions.

“Some of the steps have been proposed, but what’s new here is the combination of elements in a way that has the genuine ability to coalesce interests of the key players who have blocked action in the past,” Roberts said.

The first factor Grasso and Roberts propose is reducing the number of actors involved in the initial reductions process from the 194 involved in U.N. negotiations to the 13 members of the Major Economies Forum (MEF) that are the largest emitters in the world. The list includes both developed and developing countries, with the United States, the European Union and China at the top. Together, the 13 MEF members contribute 81.3 percent of global cumulative emissions.

Grasso and Roberts suggest that limiting the participants in this initial effort will allow the group to agree an a path forward, which has been elusive during 20 years of negotiation. Such a deal will have maximum impact because of the members’ size and global leverage, according to the paper.

Trade benefits, such as promotion of trade and investment in climate-friendly technologies and renewable energies, would motivate MEF members to take the lead in emissions abatements, they wrote.

Second, the authors suggest switching from production-based to consumption-based carbon accounting. The latter, they write, is considered a fairer system that measures emissions from the final use of goods and services. Production-based emissions accounting, the currently accepted system, can penalize economies where carbon-intensive stages in globalized production chains take place and force countries to send those production processes off-shore, a step known as “carbon leakage.”

While this system will cause some members to have a higher emissions abatement burden than with the previous system, for the most part consumption-based accounting doesn’t disproportionately penalize any one member, according to the paper.

The third element in the proposed compromise is a redistribution of the burden of carbon emissions reductions based on MEF members’ responsibility for climate change and capability. Previous concepts of responsibility and capability pitted developing, newly industrialized countries against developed countries that had historically greater contributions to global emissions.

Grasso and Roberts propose a model that would bring developing, relatively low-responsibility countries into the decision-making process while also calling for accounting for emissions retroactively to 1990, a concession to those developing countries that have long called for accounting based on historical responsibility. They suggest calculating the economic responsibility of shares of the carbon budget based on the economies of members.

Lastly, Grasso and Roberts call for bringing these changes back to the larger U.N. group to address the other 19 percent of emissions and to be inclusive of the rest of the world. They propose that richer countries provide transitional assistance to others in the form of tools, methodologies, training and knowledge.

The authors explain how compromise, rather than competition, will benefit all involved.

“Each MEF member would gain and lose something in our proposed framework,” Grasso and Roberts wrote. “They all would have to relax some of their hardline positions, otherwise a meaningful outcome will not be achievable. By so doing, all countries will gain a livable future, the core principle of national security.”


Gov. Chafee Unveils Belated Climate Master Plan

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, left, released a draft of his state plan to address climate change at Bristol Town Beach on May 8. (Tim Faulkner ecoRI News)BRISTOL — Three years and four months into his one term in office, Gov. Lincoln Chafee released a plan to address climate change in Rhode Island.

The 57-page draft document is an across-the-board effort to focus public and private entities on reducing heat-trapping gas emissions and managing climate change-induced problems such as flooding. The report was drawn up after a speedy two-month process that included 10 public meetings organized by the Executive Climate Change Council (EC3), a committee of state agency officials that Chafee authorized in late February.

If the EC3 adopts the proposal — public comment ends May 20 — the council has until the end of the year to fill in the specifics for a five-year climate plan.

The main objectives of the program seek to integrate climate-change action into all levels of government and key aspects of the economy. It includes improved collaboration between state agencies and partnerships with municipal and federal entities. It encourages public-private collaboration; identifies vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and low-income communities; and advocates for improved public education and communication. It also endorses climate-related legislation currently in the General Assembly, and sets targets for emission reductions.

During Chafee’s time in office, other efforts to tackle climate change, such as the legislator-driven Climate Change Commission, have suffered from infighting at the General Assembly and made little progress — a lack of funding has often been noted as an obstacle. In recent years, legislation to address climate change on a broad scale received little support from the governor’s office and died in committee.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, passed its Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008 and buttressed it with the Green Jobs Act and Green Communities Act. All were part of a first-in-the-nation climate plan that is credited with boosting economic growth while addressing climate change.

At the May 8 press event to mark the release of the climate plan “A Resilient Rhode Island: Being Practical About Climate Change,” Chafee had an ambiguous answer when asked why action on climate change was championed so late in his term.

Chafee told ecoRI News that addressing climate change “was always a priority from day one.” But, he added, his first order of business once taking office was to improve the local economy and create jobs, implying that tackling climate change wasn't considered a growth engine.

Yet, job creation and economic development were benefits of the climate plan Chafee touted at the recent Bristol event. “There are economic opportunities with extreme weather and climate change. Let’s take advantage of those,” he said.

Allan Klindworth of the environmental engineering firm AECOM, a global company that designs green infrastructure in Rhode Island, said climate change impedes commerce but “taking action to prepare for the issues of climate change reduces costs and disruption. It can also quicken recovery, getting people back to work faster and provide (economic) opportunities.”

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the lead agency on climate-change efforts and head of the EC3, said Chafee has had climate change on his agenda from the beginning, but had to rebuild or reorganize several state agencies before launching a master plan. Those efforts included a revamped state master plan and new leadership at the Office of Energy Resources and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, brags about jobs and growth in its green sector, with an estimated 80,000 employees working at 5,500 firms, and consistent annual double-digit job growth. The Bay State's climate legislation also triggered other programs, such as successful solar initiatives that have exceeded growth targets for renewable energy.

Massachusetts launched its programs with $68 million in state funds. Rhode Island, by contrast, has been in cost-cutting mode and relying on federal stimulus funds, grants and parsing of existing budgets to improve its green programs and initiatives.

Chafee’s new climate plan, for the most part, mimics what Massachusetts did in 2008. Oversight runs through the governor’s office. It sets benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and offers guidance to municipalities on mitigation, adaptation, renewable-energy and energy-efficiency efforts. It promotes private investment and partnerships, and supports new legislation for greenhouse gas reductions and renewable-energy programs.

Other highlights of the Resilient Rhode Island plan include: an eight-state, zero-emission vehicle plan; promote renewable thermal fuels; study “resilient microgrids” as backup power during power outages; shoreline and wetland protections and restoration; new standards for land use; upgrade roadways, and drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

What does the report lack? There’s scant talk of dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel use, an effort Massachusetts is undertaking. The Sierra Club of Rhode Island says the emission reduction targets are inadequate and have been boosted simply by the increased use of natural gas.

Abel Collins, program manager for Sierra Club Rhode Island, acknowledged that environmental groups like his shoulder some of the blame for the late start on comprehensive reform, because they didn't explicitly lobby for a master plan. But, he said, an all-inclusive climate program is better late than never.

“I don’t think that would have happened without Chafee being in support of this,” Collins said.

Author's note: An earlier version of the story did not include the distinction that the infighting within the Climate Change Commission was among members of the General Assembly.