Researcher has Gut Feeling About Climate Change

By ecoRI News staff

URI professor Scott McWilliams is studying the gut capacity of white-throated sparrows. (URI)KINGSTON — An ornithologist at the University of Rhode Island who studies the physiological changes that birds undergo to migrate has found that the capacity of a bird’s gut to change with environmental conditions is a primary limiting factor in its ability to adapt to a changing climate. He believes that most other animals also are limited in a similar way.

Scott McWilliams, a professor of natural resources science, said that spare capacity — the extent to which animals can modify their physiology to deal with ecological changes — varies from species to species, with some having great capacity to change while others do not.

“It’s all about the time scale over which evolution occurs in relation to the timing of the changes now occurring in the environment, because there are likely to be mismatches,” he said. “Rapid climate change is happening too quickly for most animals to evolve a response.”

His research, funded by the National Science Foundation, recently was published  in The Proceedings of the Royal Society.

According to a study led by a University of Arizona ecologist, many vertebrate species would have to evolve about 10,000 times faster than they have in the past to adapt to the rapid climate change expected in the next 100 years.

McWilliams and a colleague at the University of Wisconsin measured the spare capacity of white-throated sparrows, a common migratory songbird in eastern North America. They found that birds acclimated to a cold environment (-29 degrees Celsius) were able to eat 2 to 4 times as much food as sparrows acclimated to summer temperatures, although the sparrows couldn’t eat enough to live at temperatures colder than -29 degrees.

“They dramatically increase the size of their gut to accommodate the greater amount of food they must eat to meet their energy needs in the cold, yet they are able to just as efficiently digest their food when they eat much more,” McWilliams said. “That tells us something about their ability to flexibly respond to climate change. Plenty of birds migrate south because they have too limited a capacity to respond in this way. But white-throated sparrows have the spare capacity to modify their physiology to deal with substantial environmental change.”

However, when the birds were given no time to acclimate to the cold temperatures, they were only able to increase their food intake by about 50 percent. The researchers found that the birds needed at least two days to acclimate to the new conditions before they were able to eat more.

One implication of this finding is that birds that fly long distances in migration — an activity that causes their gut size to decrease because they don’t eat while flying — need a day or two to reconstitute their gut before they can resume the maximum food intake required to continue their migration.

McWilliams said the study has defined the ultimate limits of the gut capacity of white-throated sparrows. If similar limits could be established for other species, that data could be incorporated into climate models to better understand which species will likely be able to survive the coming environmental changes.

“All organisms have some level of spare capacity,” he said. “The animals that live in constant environments haven’t had to evolve much capacity, so those animals are probably going to have the greatest challenge adapting to changing conditions.”

According to the researchers, the limits of spare capacity have been studied in few other species, with most work focused on several varieties of snakes. But they say that the limitations all animals face are in their ability to convert food into usable energy.

“The gut limits the overall design of the animal,” McWilliams said.

The URI researcher’s next step is to do similar studies of how the fat composition of birds changes with environmental conditions and in response to their energy needs. Since certain polyunsaturated fats are known to improve flight performance, McWilliams said this study will have relevance to the type of food birds should eat in preparation for migration and thus what type of foods should be provided to birds in the landscape.


Municipalities Seek Help with Increased Flooding

Flooding along the Blackstone River at Ashton Mill on the Cumberland/Lincoln line on March 31, 2010. (NOAA photos)Changing weather patterns and increased urban development are to blame

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The governor’s new Executive Climate Change Council is holding a flurry of meetings as it prepares a status report for May. Some of the findings, so far, reveal a complex bureaucracy that stifles efforts to address rapid increases in flooding, sea-level rise and other climate impacts affecting Rhode Island.

In West Warwick, town planner Fred Presley has endured six serious floods since March 2010. Presley is bracing for more now that the rainy season is here, the ground is saturated and the Pawtuxet River is flowing at peak level.

"This time of year scares the heck out of me,“ Presley said during an April 15 meeting of the new climate council.

The only dry spots in town are the local coffers. A recent study found West Warwick needs up to $40 million to renovate storm drains and other infrastructure, most of it built in the late 1800s.

Presley and residents are frustrated with a lack of support to address the long-term problem. A federal program designed to buy repeatedly flooded property approved just one of two dozen homes and businesses that applied for buyouts.

Property owners are fed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the buyout program, Presley said. “FEMA is a dirty, four-letter word to them.”

Other residents are threatening to sue the town for not addressing the water woes, he said.

Stormwater is hitting the town on many fronts. Increased rainfall and unchecked development strain the city’s antiquated drainage system. Water also heads downstream from Coventry through new 48-inch drainpipes. When it rains, the new pipes overwhelm West Warwick’s 24-inch pipes.

But the elephant in the room, Presley said, is the artificially high water level at the Scituate Reservoir. The public water source is now filled to capacity earlier — March instead of June. Presley wants the water level lowered ahead of heavy rains, storms that will replenish the drained water.

“A water body that can’t take any more water is the same as a parking lot,” Presley said.

Rainwater added to the 17-square-mile surface of the reservoir simply runs over the dam and into the Pawtuxet River. The flow, he said, has increased 50 percent during heavy rains.

“It’s been proven. The data is there. It’s just that no one is doing anything about it,” Presley said.

A call to the Providence Water Supply Board, manager of the Scituate Reservoir, wasn't returned.

Three days of heavy rain in late March 2010 flooded Ann and Hope Way in Cumberland.Development problems
David Vallee, hydrologist-in-charge at the federal Northeast River Forecast Center in Taunton, Mass., said the Scituate Reservoir isn’t equipped to manage flood problems. Climate change and urban development downstream are the culprits, he said.

Climate change has brought an earlier and wetter spring, he wrote in an e-mail. “We are increasing our annual rainfall in Rhode Island by approximately 1 inch every eight or nine years. The original designers certainly never saw that kind of increase coming when they built the reservoir back in the late 1910s and early 1920s.”

Cranston, Warwick and West Warwick are all figuring out how to adapt to this influx of water.

In West Warwick, Presley is slowly advancing the concept of a stormwater utility district to pay for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. A utility district works much like a sewer system, but instead of sewage discharges, property owners pay for the volume of runoff from a building or parking lot that flows into the stormwater drains. Presley estimates an average cost of $50 a year per homeowner. It’s been a challenge to convince residents and the Town Council that these fees are needed.

“It’s a new reality because we are in new conditions right now,” he said.

Several Providence-area municipalities are considering a regional stormwater utility district, as are Middletown and Newport.

“We need some help in pulling this together,” said Jane Howington, Newport’s city manager. She described neighborhood streets flooding, as storm drains flow backward at high tide, a process known as dry flooding.

Programs and funds from the state Coastal Resources Center and the Office of Statewide Planning have paid for studies and public outreach in several communities such as Newport, but flexibility is needed from other state agencies so communities can experiment with innovative drainage techniques and advance a shared stormwater utility district, Howington said.

“Within 30 years, three to five feet of rising sea level will be in major areas within Newport that aren’t even going to be there anymore," she said. "They’ll be underwater.”

Town planners from North Kingstown and Cranston also reported persistent flooding from stormwater runoff and higher tides.

“Flooding is our issue,” said Jason Pezzullo, Cranston’s principal planner. Upgrades are needed for the sewage treatment plant and pump stations, he said. Thousands of homes lie in increasingly wet flood zones — areas that were dry until about 10 years ago.

Cranston received federal money to buy six flood-prone homes. It hopes to raise additional revenue by joining a Providence-area stormwater utility district.

Planners are counting on funds from the $75 million Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond referendum in November. Efforts also are underway to create a climate adaptation institute at the University of Rhode Island, to provide long-term solutions and expertise to municipalities.

For now, these communities want local and statewide support to advance new ideas and regional solutions.

“We need some ability to try different things without having other agencies put so severe constraints on us that we're not able to do those things that might help in the long run. That means we all have to work together on it,” Howington said.

Referring to the heavy rains falling on Providence as he spoke, Presley said he expected phone calls from flooded residents asking for help. The best he can do for now is send firefighters to pump out basements.

“This is a monumental shift that’s going on here,” he said. 

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection and chair of the Executive Climate Change Council, said she expects to include these needs and suggested solutions in the draft of recommendations that will be submitted to Gov. Lincoln Chafee next month.


Climate Change Reshaping Urban Tree Populations

Urban trees, such as these in Providence, provide many benefits, from protecting public health to keeping ecosystems resilient. Plus, they brighten up the New England fall. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)Despite protecting us from the impacts of a changing climate, our region’s trees are also threatened by wetter and warmer weather. The urban forests of today will look much different by the end of the century.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

By the end of this century, scientists predict southern New England’s seas will rise some 3 feet, and without major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they say summers here will soon resemble Georgia’s dog days.

Like the rest of the planet, southern New England’s climate is changing, and not all of the changes are as noticeable as, say, three straight days of rain that dump a foot or so of water (2010), an October snowstorm (2011), or a superstorm that hangs around for a few days (Sandy, 2012).

Some changes are less obvious, such as the 10-inch rise in sea level that has taken place along the Newport shoreline since 1931, or the greater frequency of 2-inch rainfalls since the 1950s. There’s also the often-unseen toll the changing climate is having and will have on infrastructure and buildings.

In October 2013, Boston officials released a report entitled “Climate Ready Boston,” which listed things the city should be doing to adapt to climate change, such planting more trees to lessen the heat-island effect and help cool a warming city.

But what kind of trees should we be planting? It’s not our father’s southern New England anymore. In the past decade, the region has witnessed an increase in extreme rain and snowfall events. Southern New England is becoming wetter and warmer, which means trees that once thrived for centuries may not stand up to climate change.

Climate scientists have told Chicago officials that their city will feel more like New Orleans by 2050. To prepare, the city has started planting sweet gums, swamp oaks and other heat-tolerant trees instead of white oak, the state tree of Illinois.

For trees to reach their expected lifespan — 90 years or so — they must be able to endure changing conditions. A changing climate also means trees must deal with stressors such as insects and disease, according to Doug Still, Providence’s city forester.

To deal with climate change and the additional problems it creates, Providence’s tree-planting efforts are centered around diversity. “We haven’t changed our plans too much to accommodate climate change specifically,” said Still, the city forester since 2005. “It’s about planting a diverse mix to create an urban forest that is resilient.”

This spring, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP), a street tree planting partnership between the Mary Elizabeth Sharpe Street Tree Endowment, the city and local residents, will plant 271 trees representing 35 different species, from five Armstrong maples to 10 Turkish filberts. Still said these annual plantings typically incorporate 35-40 different species.

Still is a member of the Society of Municipal Arborists and said the organization has discussed the impact climate change is having and will have on urban tree populations.

He noted that Providence is now at the southernmost tip for sugar maples. The city now only plants a few sugar maples a year, mostly in Roger Williams Park, because warmer conditions make it more difficult for the species to thrive. Scientists say the leaves of sugar maples in New England are less brilliant in color and their sap less sweet. A changing climate, they say, is to blame.

Boston has nearly 1.2 million trees. (City of Boston) In fact, climate change has municipal planners concerned about the health of their trees, and for good reason. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns could stress the region’s trees, and increased flooding, especially of the salt-water variety, could be damaging, according to the 29-page Climate Ready Boston report.

Besides their beauty, trees, especially those in urban settings, provide shade, improve air quality and mitigate stormwater runoff — their leaves keep about 20 percent of rainfall from hitting impervious surfaces such as pavement and concrete.

A row of trees along a city street can decrease the air temperature by several degrees, according to a 117-page study entitled “Building Resilience in Boston.” Shade trees planted immediately adjacent to buildings can directly reduce air-conditioning costs by 40 percent, according to the July 2013 report.

Trees also are an important part of southern New England’s history and character, are an important asset for public health and quality of life, and play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

In fact, trees help lessen the impact of climate change, even as they too are threatened by it — the same can’t be said of us. According to a recent study of Providence’s urban forest, the city’s 415,000 or so trees annually remove 91 tons of pollution, sequester 4,030 tons of carbon and eliminate 31 million gallons of runoff.

These services provide an environmental benefit of $4.7 million annually, according to the “Providence’s Urban Forests: Structure, Effects and Values.”

“All that biomass in the air that urban trees provide collects pollution and catches rainfall,” Still said. “They help lessen the impact of ground-level ozone, which causes respiratory problems.”


Climate Council Plays Catch-Up with Mother Nature

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Backed-up storm drains on Route 114 in Warren are a sign of a higher sea level in Narragansett Bay. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is way ahead of other states when it comes to climate-change planning and policies, according to Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). But the work is still not enough to adequately address the problems ahead, he said.

“Most of the tools we need don’t exist,” Fugate said during a March 27 meeting of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s Executive Climate Change Council.

Here are some findings noted by the council at its recent meeting:

Sea-level rise is already a problem in parts of the state. Fugate noted that a coastal storm drain in Watch Hill is flowing backward, pumping seawater into a parking lot twice a day during high tide.

During heavy rains, storm drains are backing up at the approaches to two relatively new bridges along the Barrington-Warren border. The flooding is of concern because the water bogs down the main road connecting both towns, a road that also serves as an emergency evacuation route.

Sea levels in Rhode Island are elevating faster than the global rate of increase, according to Fugate. He said the height of Narragansett Bay could increase 2-3 feet by 2050.

Downtown Providence, Wickford Village and the Newport waterfront are at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise. Coastal roads in Narragansett and Jamestown are at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise

Higher flood insurance premiums and disputed flood maps have had a “chilling effect” on the local real-estate market, according to Jamia McDonald, executive director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA). The CRMC has officially disputed the maps, which Fugate said are based on data from 1970. The maps, he said, overestimate inland flooding and underestimate coastal flooding.

Municipalities are vastly unprepared for the long-term commitment to address climate-change issues such as disaster recovery. “Municipalities we all know are having trouble whether they can even afford police departments and fire departments, let alone major investments for this,” Fugate said.

McDonald said RIEMA has significant funds available to pay for infrastructure upgrades. Cities and towns must have approved storm mitigation and recovery plans to receive money for rebuilding after a storm. Twenty-two communities in Rhode Island don't have such a plan.

Erosion is happening faster than the rate of recovery on beaches and in wetlands along Rhode Island’s coast, Fugate said. He described the coast as a “transgressive shoreline.”

Superstorm Sandy caused an estimated $42 million in recovery costs, yet the storm only hit Rhode Island with a glancing blow, McDonald said. The Hurricane of 1938 was the last major hurricane to directly strike Rhode Island, Fugate said.

The Executive Climate Change Commission is scheduled to meet again April 4. It plans to deliver an assessment by May 1.


Social Justice and Climate Change Stay Connected

By JOHN PANTALONE/ecoRI News contributor

KINGSTON — While they might have been preaching mainly to the choir, the message delivered by panelists at a recent climate-change forum was clear: Climate change isn’t just about science and warnings of impending doom; it’s also about social justice and quality of life, especially for people who live in economically struggling communities.

Sponsored by the R.I. Student Climate Coalition, Fossil Free Rhode Island and the URI Multicultural Center, the forum featured representatives of activist groups and the science community. Warnings were issued, as happens every time this issue is discussed, but the panelists stressed the hardships faced by low-income urban residents that result from air pollution and the aftermath of severe storms related to climate change.

One of the panelists spoke about climate change on a personal basis. Jim Bruckshaw, of the state Department of Health, told the audience about a photo journal he has kept over the years that reveals how much beach has been lost at his summer home at Roy Carpenter’s Beach in Matunuck.

“You see the water coming closer and closer,” he said. “When you see these photos, you ask, ‘Where did the beach go?’ We’ve lost houses and a way of life. The coastline is the heart and soul of Rhode Island.”

For many urban residents, beach erosion is a faraway problem. They are more concerned about the increase in asthma and other breathing disorders, said Kendra Monzon, a member of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island.

“There are heightened risks related to climate change for people who often can’t afford to go to a hospital,” she said.

Her concerns were supported by the co-director of the Environmental Justice League, Julian Rodriguez-Drix. “When you look at the levels of fossil-fuel use and impact on communities, those most affected are in low-income areas either because of mining, distribution or burning of those fuels,” he said. “Solutions, I believe, will come from those communities, but they must be holistic.”

The Providence-based Environmental Justice League engages in advocacy, education, networking, organizing and research to build power in Rhode Island’s urban communities. The organization operates a number of youth leadership programs aimed at tying climate issues and social justice issues together.

Margiana Petersen-Rockney, founding coordinator of the Young Farmer Network, spoke about efforts to encourage fossil fuel-use reductions on farms and other responsible farming practices.

“Farmers are dealing with high land values, severe weather patterns, costly adaptations to changing practices and other problems,” she said. “Rhode Island is number one in the country in direct-farm-to-consumer sales, so any production decrease is harmful.”

She said the Young Farmer Network is working with immigrant groups in the area who have farming knowledge and traditions to encourage self-sufficiency in their communities.

The director of URI’s Coastal Institute, Judith Swift, spoke of social justice issues she observed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when FEMA provided trailers to people in middle-class, white neighborhoods outside their homes so they could get to their damaged houses more easily for repairs. In low-income, black neighborhoods, she said, the trailers were lined up on asphalt parking lots miles away from people’s  homes. The city, at one point, said it would take property of homeowners who didn’t keep their lawns mowed, which added to frustrations and fears in low-income communities.

These were just a sampling of the social justice points made by the panelists, and they all agreed that Rhode Island must do much more to mitigate and prepare for the effects of climate change.
Meg Kerr, a consultant to Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, told the crowd about the Resilient Rhode Island Act (H7904) introduced recently by Handy. The primary purpose of the bill is to coordinate state agency responses to weather disasters and other climate-change issues, and to engage the community in a conversation about mitigation and the science of climate change.

Watch videos of the panel discussion here: Video 1, Video 2, Video 3Video 4 and Video 5.

John Pantalone is assistant professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. This story was produced as part of a Department of Journalism project focused on environmental and energy reporting.


Preparing R.I. for Climate Change a Daunting Task

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

What is happening to combat climate change in Rhode Island? A lot, or at least there was plenty of talk last week. But are ongoing efforts going to be enough to prepare the state for a changing climate?

State planning
The head of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), Grover Fugate, delivered a jolting status report on the Ocean State's extremely vulnerable coastline March 19 to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture.

The main takeaway: Rhode Island should focus its climate efforts on bracing for the troubles ahead.

There is so much carbon dioxide baked into the atmosphere from human activity, Fugate said, that going cold turkey on emissions would do little to stall the impacts, such a intensified storms and perhaps even a 3-foot elevation in sea level by 2050.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse received s standing ovation at a March 20 speech about climate change at the Statehouse. After the talk, he voiced support for a carbon tax. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)“We’ve put so much inertia into the system right now that we will continue to see sea-level rise for the next couple hundred years," he said. "Some scientists are saying a thousand years beyond today."

Fugate and Janet Coit, executive director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), stressed that the damage caused by recent storms such as Sandy and Irene is a sample of what to expect. Fugate even presented photos of a parking lot in Watch Hill that already floods twice a day from rising tides.

Both advocated for protecting sewage treatment plants and drinking water sources. Municipal planners also need technical, legal and financial resources to address the impacts of higher seas, flooding, hotter and harsher weather, and pubic health risks, they said.

Coit, chair of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s recently created Executive Climate Change Council, is expected to deliver a report on the most vulnerable people and places in the state to the General Assembly by May 1.

The new council heard a report March 20 explaining that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are stabilizing due to the increased use of natural gas at local power plants, as well as energy-efficiency upgrades.

Student forum
A student-sponsored forum at the University of Rhode Island held March 19 delved into grassroots efforts to address social justice issues facing disadvantaged groups imperiled by climate change. At the event, a panel of mostly young, nonprofit advocacy leaders spoke about “climate justice.” The term addresses civil rights, public transportation and pollution-induced health risks in low-income neighborhoods.

“We really need to look at this holistically and I think looking at social inequality and economic inequality is a really huge part of that as well,” said Julian Rodriguez-Drix, co-director of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island.

Other risks to low-income communities include the heat-island effect, food insecurity, electrical outages and flooding of toxic sites. “Climate change just amplifies all of these things,” Rodriquex-Drix said.

Margiana Peterson-Rockney, owner of Rosasharn Farm in Rehoboth, Mass., who works with immigrant and refugee farmers, spoke of climate impacts on both urban and rural farms. “Farmers are on the front line of being hit directly and economically by severe weather events that are going to increase in frequency. And we don’t necessarily have systems in place to ensure that those farmers have the tools and resources in place to continue growing that food.”

Washington visitor
During a rare speech, in a packed hearing room at the Statehouse on March 20, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., received a standing ovation for serving as the most vocal politician to address climate change in D.C.

“It’s really the cause of my life right now,” he said. Overwhelming scientific evidence, Whitehouse said, will dissolve the opposition in Congress.

He endorsed offshore wind energy and state research projects. Prospects for federal legislation are improving but even bills seeking small energy-efficiency standards have stalled, he said. Whitehouse, a vocal critic of the corporate-funded climate denial campaign, also mentioned plans to promote climate-change awareness during an upcoming tour of southern coastal states.

Whitehouse didn't address specific initiatives or social justice issues during his 20-minute speech. In an interview after his remarks, he discussed a controversial approach for helping the most at risk: a carbon tax or fee. He supports directing a portion of revenue from a such a tax to low-income areas. “We’ve got to be sure that the money raised by a carbon fee goes back to people so they’re not having money taken out of their pockets," he said. "It would be wrong to do it any other way."

Studies on carbon taxes, he said, show that about one-sixth of the tax revenue would be needed to protect low-wage earners. “A carbon fee is probably the best and simplest way to go right now,” Whitehouse said.

There is currently no legislation pending in Congress that proposes a carbon tax.

Grassroots solutions
Inaction on climate change in Washington and Rhode Island raised worries at the URI forum that legislation or top-down policies would be too weak to make a difference.

Judith Swift, a URI professor and director of the school’s Coastal Institute, said current efforts to address climate change are simply reactive. “I think we are practicing adaptation very effectively by disaster," she said. "What we are doing is spending money in response to disasters that could go into investments in technology and investments in green infrastructure.”

Grassroots environmentalists and policymakers agree that climate change isn’t resonating with the public.

“The average citizen does not understand that this is inevitable and we’re not getting that message out,” said Jim Bruckshaw, a panelist at the recent URI forum. He works for the state Department of Health as a safety consultant. He’s also a summer resident of Roy Carpenter’s Beach in South Kingstown.

As a result of climate change, the seasonal beach community is losing homes along the rapidly eroding shore of Matunuck Beach. The struggles at Roy Carpetner’s, Bruckshaw said, are a microcosm of what climate change is doing in big and small ways.

“It directly impacts our psychological makeup and being of who we are as people, neighbors, friends and an entire state, and the culture here,” he said.

The solution, said Rodriguez-Drix, is an all-of-the-above approach to climate change. “The more the better," he said. "The more diversity of projects and initiatives at different levels — at the highest level of government and at the deepest level of the grassroots — need to be happening.”


Newport Waterfront Faces Pressure From Rising Seas

Sea-level rise is putting the historic Newport waterfront in jeopardy. Click for larger image and to read report. (Rhode Island Sea Grant)By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT — Businesses and homeowners along the city’s waterfront face increasing costs associated with adapting to rising seas and storm tidal surges. It’s a threat that will decimate some businesses and give birth to new ones, according to the speakers at a recent climate-change forum.

A panel of state and local officials spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of some 50 people earlier this month at the Newport Yacht Club about the impacts and lessons learned from the most recent major weather events and how to prepare for a future that includes a predicted sea-level rise of 5 feet.

The panel consisted of Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC); Michelle Burnett, floodplain manager for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency; Teresa Crean of the URI Coastal Resources Center/Sea Grant Program; and Paul Carroll, the city’s director of civic investment.

The event was part of Engage Newport’s Sea Aware program, and is part of a growing effort across the Ocean State, from town halls to the Statehouse, to prepare for a changing climate.

The historic Newport waterfront is a renowned hub for coastal tourism and the marine trades. Sea level in Newport has seen a 9-inch increase since 1930, with an additional 3 to 5 feet by the end of the century is predicted, according to Fugate.

According to a study published March 9 in the journal Nature Climate Change, the Earth will experience 20 percent more warming over the next several decades than past estimates have projected.

Professor Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Science at the University of Miami, has predicted an accelerated inundation of coastal areas based on his analysis of the Greenland ice melt.

“I think it’s more likely, given what we are learning about the way ice melts, that the melting rate on Greenland will keep accelerating, and that we’ll also have increased melting of the ice in Antarctica, which would give us a five meter (some 15 feet) sea level rise by 2100,” Wanless told reporters in January.

Newport’s waterfront would be decimated. Businesses along the harbor's edge that contribute valuable revenues to the local economy must begin to implement measures to withstand future coastal hazard impacts, according to the panel.

Rhode Island Sea Grant is working with Newport’s waterfront businesses to understand risks, develop strategies and identify adaptation actions to improve their resilience, so they can bounce back quickly when extreme weather strikes. Rhode Island Sea Grant also worked in collaboration with the city and the University of Rhode Island to develop maps that illustrate areas vulnerable to sea-level rise.

While no concrete or specific solutions were advanced during the forum, aside from raising structures, there was unanimity from the panel and participants: Now is the time to act and Rhode Island is positioned to take a national leadership role in adapting and responding to the growing coastal impacts of climate change.


URI Rejects Divestment in Fossil Fuels

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON — The University of Rhode Island is the latest school in the state to reject a call to divest its investments from the fossil-fuel industry.

In a March 14 letter to Fossil Free Rhode Island, URI Foundation president Michael Smith said divestment from the university's $110 million endowment could hinder investment performance. The foundation’s fossil-fuel investments are also commingled with other investments making them difficult to extract, he wrote.

“The foundation is working to achieve strong risk-adjusted returns and feel this is best achieved by considering all potential investment opportunities,” Smith wrote.

Last November, Smith met with URI students and faculty from Fossil Free R.I. and Divest URI about divesting fossil-fuel investments from the university's endowment. Peter Nightingale, a URI physics professor and a founding member of Fossil Free R.I., and student Thomas-Anthony Viscione said they anticipated a response in December, but only just received the news. Nightingale said he expected the foundation to decline the request.

“The URI Foundation's no letter certainly has added urgency to the cause,” he said.

Viscione, a sophomore, called the decision "flagrant hypocrisy." "The University of Rhode Island wants to be a leader in educating the public about climate change, and if the foundation continues to fund these investments while the university strives to mitigate its effects, what does that say about URI?" he asked. 

Viscione and Nightingale said they are working with URI alumni to establish escrow accounts for holding donations until the foundation divests itself from fossil fuels.

"The foundation is violating the university's mission statement. It is not being a leader. It is not thinking big," Viscione said during a March 19 climate forum hosted by the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition at URI.

Smith did not return requests for comment.

Divestment campaigns are also ongoing at Brown University and at the Rhode Island School of Design. In October, Brown’s board of directors also declined to divest from coal companies.


How Do We Deal with Climate Change?

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM/ecoRI News contributor

When I was in the eighth grade, my homeroom teacher, as part of a long-forgotten assignment, asked us to imagine we were going to a desert island. What would we bring with us in preparation for the experience? Always a practical lass, I argued for bringing a needle and thread, so I could sew leaves together to make clothing, housing and such — much to the amusement of my classmates.

For whatever its worth, my imagination is still at work. Today, I’m wondering what we will need to bring with us, metaphorically, to deal with climate change?

Foremost, must be a clear understanding that climate change is inevitable — that it is, in fact, already in motion. Without widespread understanding and acknowledgement of this reality, we will not be able to muster the political will to deal with the inevitable consequences.

That word “inevitable” gives me double breath. Inevitable: predictable, certain, unavoidable, inescapable, inexorable. I wonder how we Rhode Islanders, who identify this place we call home as the Ocean State, will identify ourselves in the future? How will climate change affect our shoreline? What will it look like? How will we support our towns and cities if our waterfront , where the majority of our tax revenue comes from, is a shadow of its former self, as storm damage works its way inland?

How will the need for tax revenue be measured against safety, ecological management, aesthetic concerns and financial responsibility? How will private and public good be measured and negotiated? These matters speak to our community values, and probe how we will bump up against each other as we try to meld various interests, which is some cases may not go smoothly.

In a recent presentation at URI’s Coastal Institute, Margaret Davidson, acting director of the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, said 50 percent of this country’s population lives in a coastal county, and 60 percent of our gross natural product (GNP) is generated there. Grover Fugate, executive director of the state Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC), affirmed this concern, and reminded the audience that most of the U.S. economy is reliant on its coasts. Our success or failure to negotiate the vicissitudes and perils of climate change will clearly reverberate well past coastal communities.

What do we, in Rhode Island and southern New England, will define us. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of us aspire to live on or close to the water. So let’s look, as an example, at the value of a water view as opposed to that of a wetland. Do we develop that wetland, hence generating taxes for our towns or do we preserve it because it is not only beautiful, but it also provides us with vital ecosystem services, such as absorbing flood water, tempering erosion and providing wildlife habitat? How is such a decision made?

While there are ways to quantify these choices, they leave me cold and wondering after we tally up our various opinions, will any of us want to live in places where our landscapes are the result of a vote?

I am enormously uncomfortable contemplating these kinds of questions, they give me waking nightmares. Nonetheless, it’s past due for all of us to be concerned with and thinking about these issues. It is precisely their inevitability that should lead us to search in earnest for answers.

The time is now.


The Economics of Climate Change

Sometimes the link between development and the environment is missed. (R.I. Sea Grant)How much are we willing to pay to live on the coast?

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor

KINGSTON — To any economist things are typically broken down into “tradeoffs.” What will I give up and what will I get in return? At least that’s what Robert Johnston, an economics expert from Clark University, said at a recent talk at the University of Rhode Island.

Johnston discussed various ongoing research efforts to look more specifically at the tradeoffs of coastal management in New England communities, and the potential costs associated with climate change.

He said we can’t think about hazard adaptation in a box and isolate it from all the other management tradeoffs, noting that some of the key tradeoffs will be related to coastal development regulations.

“What are you going to do about all of the houses on the coast?” he asked. “How are you going to regulate development along with ecosystem services, like beaches people use for recreational purposes?”

There are property rights and equity concerns in play, but at the heart of Johnston’s talk was: What are people willing to pay to protect their homes or the ecological services provided by healthy habitats, such as clean water and storm buffers?

There are social gains and losses, he said, describing how every management scenario has its benefits and drawbacks. But what he’s interested in is “non-market” values.

“These are the things we don’t buy at the store,” Johnston said, referring to the benefits of having a beach or wetland. Those things can be hard to measure since their values aren’t reflected in the markets but highly influence people’s decisions.

The biggest challenge, Johnston said, is balancing development interests with a healthy environment. “Areas that are most valuable for their ecological services are where most people want to live,” he said.

Those areas, however, are sensitive to development that can disrupt highly valued services. Wetlands, for example, filter runoff, prevent erosion through stabilizing vegetation and reduce flooding by absorbing water. Removing these systems through development takes away those services.

To evaluate management tradeoffs, Johnston said, three things need to be considered:

• What are the ecological services?
• Which services will change if the land changes?
• What are the benefits and costs of these changes?

“We found some unexpected patterns,” he said. For example, Johnston discussed a project in Maine that looked at coastal development and coastal riparian restoration efforts. While policymakers assumed home protection to be the highest concern for residents, it turned out that people were willing to pay the most for increased law enforcement and regulations on private property to protect habitat quality.

“We found people were willing to pay for setback regulations, which is very different from what policymakers assumed,” he said.

Johnston’s survey method uses choice models, which can predict what percentage of people will vote for various policy choices within 1 percentile. Based on his methods, policymakers can make decisions that generate maximum support.

Understanding what people will support by finding out where their values lie is part of the process, as is educational efforts to help people make connections to ecological services.

“What drives towns? It’s not what you think,” Johnston said. “If you talk to people, it’s not their homes. It’s the access to natural areas, like beaches.”

He noted that sometimes the link between development and the environment is missed. When someone cuts down trees for a better view they’re not always making the connection that those trees are valuable to maintaining wetlands, which in turn filter our water, act as nurseries and habitat for fish, and provide protection against erosion and flooding.

“Ecological measures are not always obviously linked to what people care about,” Johnston said.

Flooding and storms are big threats for many southern New England communities that have densely packed, historical waterfronts. Some are at greater risk than others, and the impacts of building a seawall, for example, aren’t so readily obvious to non-ecologists, Johnston said.

Other concerns with living on the water include high flood insurance rates, which concern some homeowners more than the actual flooding of their homes. And these values may differ between homeowners who are primary residences vs. secondary/vacation homeowners.

It’s about quantifying attitudes and characterizing how people understand the context of coastal changes and policy, according to Johnston.

“Most management and adaptation decisions are made with little information regarding economic consequences,” he said. “Much of the information cited in the media is incomplete and expectations of policymakers are sometimes incorrect.”

Johnston is currently studying economic tradeoffs and values for coastal adaptation in both Waterford and Old Saybrook, Conn., as well as looking at property value and tax-base impacts of coastal vulnerability and adaptation throughout New England.

The Feb. 25 talk, part of the 2014 Coastal State Discussion Series, was sponsored by Rhode Island Sea Grant. The next talk in the series is scheduled for March 26 and is titled “Emerging Marine Diseases in Narragansett Bay.”

Editor's note: Meredith Haas is the marine research communications specialist for Rhode Island Sea Grant.