What will the Warwick shoreline of 2100 look like?
It’s not hard to imagine the impact of global warming on the city’s 39 miles of coastline. Just think back to last summer and Tropical Storm Irene. A good portion of Shawomet and Point Avenues were inundated, as were vast sections of Conimicut. That wasn’t the only neighborhood. Sections of Oakland Beach, Buttonwoods, Potowmut and just about every low-lying seaside community in the city were affected.
There’s a big difference, however, between what happened last year and what scientists say will be conditions in less than 90 years. Irene’s storm surge, mild in comparison to others that have hit Rhode Island, lasted less than an hour. The higher sea levels of 2100 will be the norm and storm surges of the future promise to flood vast new sections of the city.
Of course, it won’t only be Warwick. Every coastal community from Providence to Newport will be affected. Waterfront properties will be under water and residents who may have wished for more than just a waterfront view will have waves lapping at their doorstep.
Of course, it won’t happen over night. There will be efforts to save communities, as now is happening in Mantunuck, and roads that are being flooded more frequently, as is the case in Bristol. There will be debates over what should be saved; to what extent people should be permitted to hold back the sea and whether and how much of taxpayer funds should be spent.
Also, along with the rise of the sea there will come other impacts of climate change. How will warmer temperatures on land and water affect plants and animals? What might it mean in terms of health and the proliferation of diseases?
Those were just some of the questions addressed Friday at the first in a series of the Peter B. Lord Seminars on the Environment hosted by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. Lord, who died earlier this year, was the environmental reporter for the Providence Journal and a member of the Metcalf Institute advisory board. The seminar was held at the Coastal Institute of URI Graduate School of Oceanography.
While there were ample questions as to how to respond to climate change, there was no argument that change is happening and that sea level will increase from 3 to 5 feet by 2100.
John Merrill of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography made that clear. With warmer oceans, he noted that there are larger areas to spawn tropical storms. With higher levels of carbon dioxide, seas are becoming more acidic and there is a corresponding decrease in calcium carbonate that affects the growth of corals and shellfish.
“I’m not preaching gloom and doom,” he insisted, although one condition after the next seemed for the worse.
Using historical data, Pam Rubinoff of the URI Coastal Resources Center, showed how this part of the country is witnessing an increase of storms with intense precipitation, even with a decrease in snow. The result so far has been earlier spring runoffs and bay algae blooms.
“Climate change is here,” she said. By 2050, Rubinoff said sea level will be “at least a foot higher.”
Rubinoff couldn’t imagine a positive side to a rising sea level and the picture offered by John King of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography and Janet Freedman of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) was no brighter. They didn’t see hurricanes as the major threat, although they will hit and there will be bad ones. Rather, it is the increased prevalence of the nor’easters that persistently erode coastal beach areas. That point was driven home with aerial photographs of state beaches and buildings that were once behind beach dunes and are now buffeted by waves.
CRMC executive director Grover Fugate called efforts to save houses at Matunuck Beach the “tip of the ice berg.” Rising sea levels, he said, would cut Block Island in half and inundate large sections of the state.
“The bad news is that we’re still in deep do-do.”
He foresees legal battles as the agency exercises control over efforts to hold back the waters and the public demand to invest in areas where the battle can’t be won. Most frightening, he said, is that everything is happening faster than predicted.
“We’re looking at 3 to 5 feet [in sea level rise] as an almost certainty,” he said.
He questioned whether the Providence hurricane barrier, designed by 1950 standards, would be capable of protecting the city when he observes that Waterfront Park is already flooded 16 to 19 days a year.
Referring to pressure to build on the waterfront, he concluded, “The height of people’s stupidity is unfathomable at some times.”
Fellow panel members Diane Williamson of the town of Bristol and Tricia Jedele of the Conservation Law Foundation advocated planning now rather than waiting for a crisis; and determining where to retreat and where to hold the line.
Fugate also talked about “public pushback” and how people are questioning the science.
The data offered by Candice Oviatt of the School of Oceanography showed that, since the late 1880s; temperatures are 2 degrees warmer overall and 4 degrees warmer during the winter months; that winds have decreased by 20 percent; and that the number of cloudy days have increased, from 120 to 180 a year. She said winter flounder have decreased dramatically and lobster and crabs have increased.
“Those that like cold conditions have left the bay,” she said.
Reporters and editors also got somewhat of a good news story from John Torgan of the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“What we do about it is really important,” he said.
He cited measures to stop wastewater runoff and the positive impact they have had on water quality.
The series continues on Nov. 30 with the topic, “Adapting to climate change: Planning for an uncertain and expensive future.” Additional topics, including renewable energy, predicting extreme weather, water quality and the future of fisheries, will be explored in 2013.