Rising Seas Putting Vital R.I. Wetlands At Risk

By ecoRI News staff

Sea level-rise projections for Rhode Island have jumped to an upper limit of 7 feet by 2100. The revision is an increase in the 3- to 5-foot projection by 2100 for Narragansett Bay, set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Now the science is literally changing by the day,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). “This program change cites the NOAA standard, and it’s updated regularly, so we would update our policy along with it.”

Officially, the new sea-level estimates are a foot by 2035, 2 feet by 2050 and 7 feet by 2100. Areas at most risk for sea-level rise are already experiencing problems with coastal wetlands and salt marshes. A 5-foot rise in sea level is expected to wipe out 87 percent of the state’s 4,000 acres of shoreline wetlands.

Data collected by Save The Bay and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Reserve show that salt marshes are already suffering because they can’t build up fast enough to compete with higher water levels.

Coastal wetlands in Barrington, Charlestown, North Kingstown, Warren, Westerly and Narragansett are expected to experience the most damage from sea-level rise.

NOAA projects a number of sea level-rise impacts to worsen across southern New England, such as habitat fragmentation and transformation, loss of certain coastal ecosystems and species, and threats to shoreline communities.

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, sea levels are rising faster today than any time in the previous 2 million years. The rise is projected to accelerate even with strong reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The East Coast, from North Carolina to Boston, is considered a hot spot for sea-level rise, with coastal waters climbing three to four times faster than the global average, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey.

CRMC recently announced the higher estimates to raise awareness for its online sea level-mapping program STORMTOOLS. The interactive map helps homeowners and municipalities visualize the risks from coastal storms and flooding and plan for the impacts of sea-level rise.

Rhode Island Statewide Planning also requires that sea-level estimates are addressed in city and town comprehensive plans.

CRMC is hosting a meeting Feb. 4 from 6-8 p.m. to update the public on sea-level rise and the agency’s shoreline management plan, called the Beach SAMP. The meeting is being held at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett.