Models Predict 3-5 Feet of Sea-Level Rise by 2100

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — The shock and concern felt by the audience that filled Bazarsky Lecture Hall at Salve Regina University last Thursday night was palpable, as image after image of cherished Ocean State coastline and harbor front was shown inundated by rising sea levels.

Adapt to the impacts of climate change, or perish — that was the gist of the panel discussion. It was a plain and powerful message by a trio of presenters during the Pell Center’s “Adapting to Changing Climate: Policy Choices Facing Rhode Island.”

Sea-level rise predicted up to 5 feet is now scientific consensus, said Pell Center Executive Director James Ludes, Ph.D., in his welcoming remarks.

Coastal communities take notice. A 2013 study by the University of Rhode Island predicted sea levels will rise 3-5 feet over 1990 levels by 2100.

“We’ve gone to all 21 coastal communities to look at the future with some maps,” said Pamela Rubinoff, of URI’s Coastal Resources Center. “While we don’t know when the next nor’easter or hurricane will come, we do know that the damage is going to be worse. How can we choose to act differently? Will we need to retreat in some areas? In some areas, yes. In all areas we need to be more resilient.”

The map and visualizations of the Newport waterfront, the heart of a thriving tourist destination, revealed large swaths of harbor-side neighborhoods inundated and prominent waterside landmarks partially submerged, all within an enlarged harbor created by a sea level rise of 5 feet.

What is being done? Not enough it seems. According to Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the city of Annapolis, Md., is planning for a 2- to 3-foot rise by 2030.

There was no mention of a comparable plan in Newport or anywhere else in Rhode Island.

Newport’s tourism industry, real-estate market and, by extension, the city’s tax base is threatened by the growing and coming impacts of climate change. “We can’t just go about doing things the way have been because a lot of change is coming,” Rubinoff said.

For perspective, Fugate noted that Superstorm Sandy destroyed 360,000 homes in New Jersey, saying that it’s only a matter of time before a storm on the scale of the infamous 1938 hurricane hits Rhode Island again.

“We need to engage more businesses,” said Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration at Save The Bay. “We have two friends: distance and elevation.”

Move inland, upland and raise threatened buildings up a floor. For hundreds, if not thousands, of impacted homes and businesses to achieve this is a admittedly daunting task.

Before closing out the question-and-answer period of the Jan. 30 forum, the guest speakers sought to put a positive spin on the impending slow-motion tsunami. Ferguson called for a green infrastructure bond, “leveraged to deal with the scale of the problem, which is massive.”

Fugate said this would be money well spent, because for every $1 in adaptation $4 is saved in disaster relief. “To the extent we can prevent these losses, that’s what we want to do,” he said.

Fugate called for “climate change adaptation bonds” to be put on the ballot in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, it’s anticipated that legislation will be introduced to study and address the problem statewide.

“Representative Handy (Art Handy, D-Cranston) is taking a very progressive look at what is necessary in terms of adaptation,” Fugate said. “We need to make some hard choices before we have another Superstorm Sandy. At the national level we need to get our heads straight, and we are not there yet.”