Should we be worried about a rise in sea levels?

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The question wasn’t a surprise.

“Is the city taking any measures to address a rise in the sea level?”

Jonathan Nelson, who is studying community adaptation to flooding and sea-level rise for his dissertation in sociology at Brown University, sat on our porch with a notebook in one hand and a pen in another. When he contacted me by email inquiring whether we might talk about the effects of climate change and the rising sea level, I suggested that in place of a telephone conversation we meet and I show him around Warwick – and my house seemed like the best place to start.

We never went any further. We really didn’t need to, because development along the coastline from Gaspee on the west side of the bay to East Providence across the Providence River and south to Barrington and Conimicut Point is clearly visible from our seawall.

Gaspee Point and the shores of Conimicut are dotted with houses. Many were summer homes and have now been converted to year-round housing. The same is true of the other side of the bay, from Riverside to West Barrington. At the higher elevation of Nyatt Point, the houses are larger, as are their lots. That’s the high-rent district.

In another 50 years, and likely sooner, many of the houses we were looking at will be gone if the projection in the rise in sea level – an increase of 5.58 to 19.68 inches is forecast for Providence by the year 2050, according to the website SeaLevelRise.org – are accurate and there is an increase in severe storms as precipitated by climate change.

That all seemed remote on a sunny Friday with a rippling bay barely lapping against the seawall. The tide was rising, but even then such flooding was incomprehensible.

We have been fortunate. Since moving here in 1975, we’ve weathered several hurricanes, including Gloria, Bob and Irene. The surge of Super Storm Sandy was the worst, with waters coming to within 10 feet of the porch.

Having talked with John Migliaccio, who grew up in this house, Hurricane Carol was far worse.

John recalled the day of the storm when I saw him Sunday. His father, a doctor, left for work in Providence early in the morning, as was customary. As winds built and it was apparent this was no ordinary storm, the doctor was able to reach the house by phone and asked John and his friends to add an additional 200 feet of line to the mooring that secured their ketch sailboat. John pulled it off in the building seas and then hauled the dinghy up the lawn, tying it to the fence on Bellman Avenue. After the hurricane passed, the ketch was the only boat still on her Conimicut mooring. The dinghy and the fence were gone, as were a number of houses.

Our house survived Hurricane Carol, as it did the Great Storm of 1938 that killed hundreds and wiped Conimicut Point clear of houses. So, what’s the concern over a few inches of rise in sea level?

Jon was well versed in the topic, having compared the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps for Warwick with those prepared by Grover Fugate, former director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. Fugate’s maps show large sections of Warwick – especially low-lying neighborhoods including Oakland Beach, Buttonwoods, and neighborhoods off West Shore Road – as being flooded during storms. Perhaps most striking are the maps showing Warwick Neck as an island cut off from the rest of the city.

That map is enough to cause the most ardent of climate change deniers, especially if they live in Warwick, to wonder what would happen if they’re proven wrong.

Our conversation shifted to land values and why waterfront property continues to demand a premium when flood insurance is so costly and the prospect of being flooded appears more likely than ever. Jon was interested to learn that it hasn’t always been that way, and there was a time when summer beach homes in Oakland Beach, Conimicut and other parts of the city were among the most affordable housing. We also talked about many of the issues facing the city today, from school funding to aging water and sewer pipes, taxes, crumbling roads and dwindling financial reserves.

So, Jon asked, are Warwick homeowners worried about sea level rise?

I don’t hear it, and I think that’s largely because the rise in sea level is slow and there’s denial it will ever affect them. Jon said some communities, most notably Charlestown and Westerly, are taking measures to address rising waters though limiting shoreline development and preserving open space.

As for what Warwick is doing, Jon answered his own question: “I guess the city has enough more pressing problems.”

I look forward to reading and reporting on his dissertation, which he expects to complete next spring – assuming, naturally, that sea levels behave.

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