Climate Change Planning Doesn't Meet Reality

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island recently held the second in series of seminars on climate change. The program honors the late Peter B. Lord, longtime environmental writer for the Providence Journal. Here are a few noteworthy points that were offered Nov. 30 by 15 scientists, engineers, planners and other experts:

Snowpack in the Northern New England has decreased its annual average by 16 percent since 1926.

Sea level is projected to rise between 2.5 and 6 feet by 2100. “If you want to see what 5 feet of sea level rise will look like, you look at Hurricane Sandy,” said Bryan Oakley, a URI researcher and professor of earth sciences at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Rebuilding on the coast after storms is ultimately futile, according to Oakley, an expert on shoreline erosion. “Retreat is the only sure option. The others are just Band-Aids.”

Oakley recognized the reluctance of owners to give up their land. One possible option for keeping shorelines assessable, he said, is to build impervious road surfaces that adjust to the forces of erosion.

Coastal cities, Oakley said, face bigger challenges than beach communities, as elevating metropolises would be a massive and costly undertaking.

The National Park Service is adapting to climate change by replacing structures at its coastal parks with movable buildings. Asphalt parking lots are being replaced with permeable, clay-based materials and clamshells.

Salt marshes are considered ideal for coastline protection, especially during storms. It’s been asserted that marshes accrete, or essentially grow taller, as the sea level rises. But Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s restoration coordinator, said marshes may not be to keep up with rising sea levels, especially as erosion accelerates along their edges.

Flood zones, as determined by FEMA, don't take into account expected sea level rise.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is planning for higher sea level, erosion and storm surges. Director Grover Fugate said there is no uncertainty about climate change. “I can tell you it’s real. I can’t tell you how fast it’s moving and how bad it’s going to get," he said.

Fugate advocated for planning for the worst-case scenario. “Even if we go to zero emissions today, we’ll see sea level rise for centuries, potentially," he said.

State Department of Transportation director Michael Lewis used gallows humor to describe the inevitability of the destructive force brought on by climate change. “If you lose the community, why do you need the road?” he asked.

Wastewater treatment facilities, which the DOT manages, are already retrenching for flooding, Lewis said.

State Division of Statewide Planning is asking cities and towns to include adaptation for sea level rise and climate change in their comprehensive plans.

State Climate Change Commission is likely to be more reactive than proactive about climate change adaptation, according to Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston. "I have a sense we are fiddling as Rome is burning," he said.