2013-04-25 / News

Experts say climate change isn’t looming, it’s already occurring

Coastal authorities present reality of sea-level rise to Narragansett Bay residents
By Ken Shane

An overflow crowd attended a presentation on climate change at the North Kingstown Free Library last week to hear experts discuss the reality of sea-level rise on coastal Rhode Island.

The event was sponsored by the Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Speakers included Pam Rubinoff, a coastal planner, and Janet Freedman, a state geologist with the Coastal Resources Management Council. Also presenting was Teresa Crean, a specialist on coastal management extension. Crean discussed issues specific to North Kingstown.

The experts talked about the potential impacts of storms and sealevel rise on coastal areas and how to better protect people, property and public infrastructure from the effects of erosion and flooding.

Rubinoff, co-author of “Adapting to Coastal Climate Change: A Guidebook for Development Planners,” began with a chart that showed the rise in temperature over the last 131 years. She wanted to demonstrate that climate change is occurring, and not something that may happen in the future. Among the facts, she said there were warmer winters, less snow, sea-level rise, spring runoff, record floods, and coastal erosion.

According to Rubinoff, warmer oceans have led to the migration of fish usually found in colder Northeast waters. Moon tides have risen compared to normal levels, and the number and intensity of hurricanes have increased, she said.

Since 2008, the state’s coastal council has been mapping the sealevel rise of Narragansett Bay. According to its projection, it is likely to rise 3 to 5 feet by 2100. As a result, the CRMC has mandated that houses built along the coast be raised by a minimum of 1 foot of freeboard.

According to Rubinoff, the higher that houses are raised, the more homeowners can save on flood insurance. As an example, she said that a homeowner currently paying $2,565 a year for flood insurance can have payments reduced to $725 a year. That translates to a savings of $21,750 over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage.

Rubinoff said coastal wetlands have to also be protected from sea-level rise. The coastal council is currently mapping the potential loss of wetlands, and Save the Bay is monitoring conditions and working on restoration projects. Meanwhile, a four-year state Department of Health project known as SafeWater RI is studying the impact of sea-level rise on wells, reservoirs and other infrastructure elements.

Along with advancements by the Health Department and CRMC, the General Assembly has also taken steps to combat the shifting weather patterns. A 28-member climate commission, established by the state’s Climate Risk Reduction Act of 2010, issued a progress report in November called “Adapting to Climate Change in the Ocean State: A Starting Point.”

The report summarized key cli- mate risks and social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. It also touches on current and projected impacts on human health and welfare, public and private infrastructure, and the natural environment.

Rubinoff closed her portion of the presentation with a 2011 quote from Christiana Figueres of the United Nations, who is in charge of talks aimed at lowering greenhouse emissions.

“We meet here at a time when greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere have never been higher. When the numbers of livelihoods that have been dissolved by climate change impacts have never been greater. And when the need for action has never been more compelling or more achievable.”

Freedman pointed out that warmer atmosphere caused by increased evaporation has resulted in more intense storms. Sea-level rise is caused, in part, by the increased melting of ice in areas like Greenland, she said.

According to Freedman, 26,000 years ago the Laurentide ice sheet moved south from Canada and covered an area that encompassed Rhode Island. It stretched as far south as Long Island. The accumulation of water in the glaciers caused a massive drop in sea level to about 350 feet below present levels. The glacier began to retreat about 10,000 years ago, she said, causing the sea level to rise and the local coastline to be exposed.

Using the Greenland ice sheet as an example, Freedman said that between 1972 and 2007 most of the ice melt took place on the outer edges of the sheet. However, last year the melt occurred over the entire surface. Cracks in the external of the sheet have caused water to flow to the base of it, resulting in water surges and more calving of ice. According to Freedman, it remains to be seen what the effect of the melt will be on the sheet’s gravitational pull on the opposite shore.

Freedman said the rate of acceleration is not linear. Projections are based on several scenarios that include the cessation of adding fossil fuels to the atmosphere by 2030, which would add 1 foot of sea-level rise. If the current rate of fossil-fuel usage is maintained, she said Narragansett Bay can expect a 3-foot rise. If developing countries add to the current level of fossil fuels in the atmosphere, sea level may rise as much as 5 feet by the year 2100, she said.

According to experts, sea-level rise is occurring in the Northeast at a rate that is about three to four times higher than the global average. That means by 2100 we could have 7 to 12 more feet of sea level than the rest of the world. Current projections estimate there will be 5.1 feet of sea-level rise at the Newport buoy by 2030, and 12.2 feet by 2050.

Low-lying areas of southern and eastern Rhode Island are currently flooded by moon or spring tides, the experts say. Based on projections, it is possible that increased flooding will take place on a daily basis at high tide. With the help of a storm surge, it will result in changes to the shoreline. Other impacts will include a rise in the water table. This will lead to failing septic systems, Freedman said.

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