Sandy: A wake up call to climate change


While the sea level has risen a mere half inch in the past 22 years, according to studies, the trend has accelerated and state officials are saying Rhode Islanders need to plan for rises of 3 to 5 feet and possibly as much as 6 feet by the end of this century.

There was no argument with that Friday at the second in a series of seminars on the environment named in memory of Providence Journal environmental reporter Peter B. Lord. The seminar was conducted by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. The seminar, focused on adapting to climate change and planning for an uncertain and expensive future, brought together some of the state’s agency department directors, engineers, educators, planners and representatives from business and the legislature.

“I can tell you that it is real,” said Grover Fugate, director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Council, of the rise in sea level. “I can’t tell you how fast or how bad it is.”

His assessment is backed up in a report in the journal Science and released Thursday. In it, an international team of satellite experts show melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets has contributed 11.1 millimeters (7/16th of an inch) to global sea levels since 1992. About two-thirds of the ice loss was from Greenland, the remainder from Antarctica. The study found the combined rate of ice sheet melting has increased over time and Greenland and Antarctica are now losing more than three times as much ice per year as they were in the 1990s, from about an inch of sea level per year to about three inches per year.

According to information provided at Friday’s seminar, the sea level at Newport has risen one foot since 1930. Another example is Providence Waterfront Park where, at moon high tides, there is only a foot of freeboard. Fugate’s conclusion is “that whole park will be lost very shortly.”

Using aerial photographs and data from as recent as Superstorm Sandy, Fugate said the Rhode Island coastline is eroding and we’re seeing a constant movement of sediment from west to east, with much of that being lost as it is carried far offshore.

“Our shoreline is moving back rapidly. Our headlands are going back at a rapid rate,” he said.

He said erosion has doubled in some areas and, in terms of climate change, Rhode Island’s climate is now akin to what New Jersey used to be. He doesn’t see the trend being reversed, either.

“Even if we go to zero emissions today, we’ll continue to see sea level rise for the next decades,” he said.

Fugate’s message, repeated by other speakers, is, “We have to plan for the worst.” That is not simply an increase in sea level, but also interaction with storm surges that become worse with increasingly severe storms.

“It’s only a matter of time before we get hit by another 1938 hurricane,” said North Kingstown town planner Jon Reiner.

The ’38 hurricane was used as an example of the devastation the state could have seen from a direct hit from Sandy and as an impetus to take measures, such as the Providence hurricane barrier, to mitigate storm damage.

“We dodged a bullet here,” said Michael Lewis, state director of transportation.

He said Sandy caused $15 million in damages to infrastructure in Rhode Island, a fraction of the $29 billion in damages to New Jersey and $40 billion in New York.

The ’38 hurricane (before hurricanes were assigned names) swept Rhode Island with a 17- to 19-foot surge and battered the state with 180-mile per hour winds. Sandy had a six-foot surge and top winds of 80 miles per hour, said Fugate.

Issues of how climate change and the rise in sea level will impact the state are being integrated into the state’s comprehensive plan.

Chelsea Siefert, a principal planner with the Statewide Planning Program, said municipalities are asked to look at determining what areas should be subject to rebuilding, protection, adaptation or abandonment. They are being asked to list their most vulnerable resources, such as wastewater pumping stations and emergency facilities, in developing their plans. As a standard, she said, municipalities are directed to use a three- to five-foot increase in sea level by 2100 as “a kind of standard.” Such planning is just what Reiner aims to do.

“We don’t want to be picking up and moving it again,” he said of the bridge in Wickford Village. “We know the sea level is rising and we have to act on it now.”

But that’s not easy, especially when so much has been invested in the existing infrastructure. Reiner, Lewis and William Patenaude of the Department of Environmental Management office of water resources pointed out that increased sea levels cause existing drainage systems to lose their effectiveness. On another front, Patenaude pointed out that wastewater treatment facilities are designed as gravity systems, with the lowest points being where pumping stations and treatment plants are built. With an increase in sea level, the Narragansett Bay Commission plant at Field’s Point is vulnerable and, as seen during the 2010 flood when the Pawtuxet River crested above 21 feet, Warwick and West Warwick treatment plants are subject to flooding in severe rainstorms. Those facilities, as Fugate termed it, need to be “armored” to withstand future storms. Moving would be too costly.

But changing people’s attitudes and getting them to see the importance of such action, especially when linked to budgets and taxes, is difficult.

Lewis calls planning “obvious,” but notes that once an event occurs, people generally conclude, “isn’t that too bad and get on with things in life.”

Rep. Arthur Handy, chair of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, called state department directors “reality-based” and cognizant of the challenges presented by climate change. As a result of Sandy, he believes the legislature will be more receptive to acting now to save in the future. Citing the 2010 flood, tropical storms Irene last year and Sandy this year “is not once in a lifetime.”

He cited Rolfe Square in Cranston as an example of good planning. He suggested municipalities look at areas where there is an existing congregation of housing, retail space, public infrastructure, including public transportation, and look outside the radius for flooding and storm surge for development.

Louis Gritzo offered a fresh perspective on the preverbial 100-year or 500-year storm used to describe the recent storms. Gritzo, vice president and manager of research at FM Global, the largest commercial property insurer, said most people would not buy lottery tickets if told they would win once in 100 years, but that changes when told they have a one percent chance of winning every year.

Gritzo said FM Global believes most losses can be prevented and, operating on that basis, its research center in Johnston looks for ways to reduce vulnerability.

“Obviously, we’re in climate change and in economic instability,” he said, but there are means to adapt and some of them, as he pointed out, are as simple as taking steps to prevent floods entering a building by installing water-tight doors.

Applying that thought to a larger scale, Handy said what the state needs to do is “to insure against what will happen, not against what might happen.”

Lewis hopes Sandy will cause people to shift their thinking, although he questions if that will happen. A big threat is that,“disaster amnesia sets in quick.”


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