Newport Waterfront Faces Pressure From Rising Seas

By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor

NEWPORT, R.I. — 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.