2012-02-02 / Front Page

Should Jamestown take action against rising sea level?

Councilman says town will have to make adaptations to combat climate change
BY KEN SHANE

“Rhode Island’s coastal communities are experiencing changes brought about by chronic events, primarily sea level rise, and changes brought about by the increasing severity of catastrophic events, extreme weather ranging from hurricanes to nor’easters.”

This is an excerpt from a recent article by Andrew Baer. According to Baer, the time for talking about reversing the effects of climate change has passed, and the time for determining ways to adapt to new environmental realities is at hand. Baer is a partner in Oyster Works, a Charlestown architecture, design and project management firm. A recent article he wrote for the firm’s website raises important issues for all of southern Rhode Island.

“We are really going to have to think about the impact of sea level rise on the Navy’s infrastructure…we know climate change is not only coming, but it’s here.” This statement from Rear Adm. David Titley of the U.S. Navy Task Force on Climate Change serves as the jumping-off point for Baer’s article titled, “Adapting to Climate Change in Southern Rhode Island.”

Baer himself lives on a coastal salt pond in Charlestown. His father had a keen interest in the environment and started the Salt Pond Coalition, so there is a heritage of being interested in the ecology of the coastal area.

“All the talk of global warming and sea level rise is utterly academic,” Baer said. “This is happening and you can see the changes in the coast.” As an example, Baer mentions the current situation in Matunuck, where houses are being lost to coastal erosion and some residents need to bring in their own water due to salinity in the aquifer.

“We should be proactively thinking about what we can and should do,” Baer said. “We think that forward-thinking communities would begin to at least raise this as a question.”

Jamestown Town Council Vice President Bob Bowen agrees with Baer. Bowen said that the council has even gone so far as to have a discussion about sea level rise with the state Department of Transpor- tation.

“I think [Baer’s] right,” Bowen said. “Adaptation to climate change is where we have to be putting our effort now. We are going to see significant changes, some of which we’re starting to notice already, including coastal erosion and the increased ferocity of storms. We’re going to have to start making adaptations.”

According to Bowen, Jamestown brought up the issue of sea level rise at a meeting last year with the head of the Department of Transportation. Among other things, that discussion included the impact of the rising water level on the North Main Road bridge over Zeke’s Creek. Sea level rise combined with storm surge puts the bridge at risk, and the DOT has it on their list of things to look at.

“As in most states there is a lack of financial backing for some of the things that need to be done,” Bowen said. “So they may be looking at some of the statewide programs like [the Transportation Improvement Program], and starting to target projects that are in need of work as a result of climate change and rising sea level’s impact on coastlines.”

Bowen said that the DOT could use what had been standard acrossthe board infrastructure assistance to local communities, but target specific areas, such as low-lying roads and bridges.

According to Baer, it is important to stress the fact that talking about reversing the effects of global warming and sea level rise on the coastal communities is pointless. The emphasis should now be on finding ways to adapt to the changes that are already here.

“We can accept what is, and we can look around and see what’s happening,” Baer says. “We can make drastic changes in our energy use, smokestack emissions, and other things, and perhaps we can mitigate the damage. But there is no way we’re going to turn it back, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that conclusion.”

Baer says that what we should do is to realize that global warming and sea level rise are happening, and that our communities are going to feel the impact of it. The tasks now, according to Baer, are figuring out how we can mitigate the damage, and how we can adapt to change.

Baer addressed the controversial concept of continuing to build homes on the shoreline from his viewpoint as a builder. “CRMC regulations discourage building in certain areas,” Baer said. “There are certain areas where, if you have a house you can keep it there, but if it gets wiped out you’re not going to be allowed to rebuild. We have to think about to what degree do we collectively, including government, protect things like that.” Maintenance of roads that access these properties should also be part of that discussion, according to Baer.

“How much can the town, state or federal government commit to maintaining this when you know it’s kind of a losing battle?” Baer asked. While he does not claim to have the answers, Baer thinks it is an important discussion.

“This should be a public discussion. It should be convened by business groups like the chambers of commerce and by local planning boards, to begin to raise the issue so that people can at least get familiar with what the issues are so that we can think collectively about the problems and explore courses of action.”

One of the effects of climate change is the increased ferocity of storms. Bowen points to the damage done to the seawalls at East Ferry and along Racquet Road as a result of Hurricane Irene. “Those are costly repairs,” Bowen said. “We need to start thinking about how we’re going to address that, and start talking to the DOT about how we can get some assistance.”

“We have to accept that there is a problem,” Baer said. “We’re no longer debating the science. We’re no longer saying that this isn’t going to happen. This is happening. We are threatened. Our environment is changing. We have to adapt to change.”

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