In Hurricane Sandy’s wake, one thing is certain: our coastline, so important to Rhode Island’s image and economy, is going to be under increasing threat in years to come. In fact, the same holds true for much of the entire eastern seaboard of the country, all the way down to the tip of the Florida peninsula. Sandy was billed as the “Storm of the Century,” which is obviously getting ahead of things when you consider that there are 82 years remaining in the current century. Perhaps it will indeed be the storm of the decade (let’s hope so), but it will certainly be followed by future eastern seaboard killer storms that may make Sandy’s destructive energies seem minor in comparison.
That’s because ocean levels are rising with the melting of the Arctic polar ice cap, which has been melting during the summer months at an unprecedented rate in recent years. There are even continuing effects from the last ice age to deal with. Rhode Island has 400 miles of coastline, and our coast is actually sinking due to the effects of continued ice sheet melting from the last glacial period. Mid-Atlantic land sinking is in response to an uplift of land in more northern latitudes above us; as the northern portions of North America and European land areas rise, ours fall.
So while the world’s sea level has risen between 6 and 8 inches during the last 100 years, the sea level in the eastern Atlantic has risen even more: between 12 and 16 inches in the last 100 years. The rate of sea level rise during the last 100 years has been more than twice the average rate over the last few thousand years (figures cited from the EPA document, The Likelihood of Shore Protection Along the Atlantic Coast, Vol. 2, 2010.)
One can argue about the causes of global warming, but not its effects: a 1-percent rise in temperature has caused a sea level rise of 1 to 2 inches. Over the next 100 years, the sea level could rise another 2 feet. Further out, melting of the Greenland and even Antarctica ice sheets could cause a sea level rise of 5 to 10 feet. There is a scary trajectory map of the eastern seaboard that shows much of the present coastline gone in 50 years, to include New York City, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and most of Florida.
Higher ocean levels, whipped by hurricane strength winds, means more ocean water pushed onto coastal land, much of it at or below sea level to begin with.
We’ve all seen the images of devastation from our own Misquamicut shoreline, down through Connecticut, in Queens, N.Y. and across the Jersey shore – buildings ravaged by wind and tidal surge. When we look at aerial views of the destruction, it does seem obvious when we consider how close to the waterline the buildings are in the first place.
Beach erosion is taking place along our coast with every storm, so one day the Ocean Mist bar, which seems to be the image of the state’s plucky resistance to the water, will get swallowed up and washed away. And the Ocean Mist is far from the only structure that sits in harm’s way – there are entire communities perilously close to the water’s edge. That’s why we need to start looking at ways to fortify and even realign our coastal areas and curtail, if possible, risky seaside development. That should start in Westerly with the Misquamicut area. If you’ve been to Misquamicut Beach of late, you’ve probably noticed that there really isn’t much beach left there at all; just a thin strip is all that remains of one of the state’s great former beaches. Rebuilding directly across the road on such vulnerable land – and perhaps at Roy Carpenter’s Beach, too, just up the coast, also hard hit by Sandy – will simply be an invitation to the next path of destruction from an unstoppable ocean.
Rhode Island’s Coastal Management Resources Council (CMRC), which is tasked with preserving, protecting and responsibly developing our shoreline areas, should take a hard look at our numerous vulnerabilities in light of Hurricane Sandy – and with an eye to Sandy’s future big brother or sister that will surely come our way, perhaps straight up Narragansett Bay.