An Ocean Warming: Sea Level Rise

In a previous post, we explored changing ocean chemistry through the phenomenon known as ocean acidification, and the effects of it on the people and species that call the Gulf of Maine home.

However, there is another important piece of the puzzle. As ocean water becomes warmer and more acidic, it expands and swells. This increase in volume, combined with fast-melting arctic sea and land ice, causes substantial changes in sea level – which can wreak havoc on our coastlines.

Numerous studies have shown that the East Coast, ranging from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine, is experiencing this phenomenon, known widely as sea level rise, at a rate three to four times faster than the global average. In fact, researchers refer to the region as a “unique 1,000-kilometer-long hotspot” where the impacts will be “disproportionately felt.” For New England especially, sea level rise spells trouble because of the vulnerability of our coastal cities, utilities, and infrastructure – not to mention our strong dependence on our coastal economies.

Unquestionably, the threat of sea level rise demands our attention because frankly, this isn’t an issue to be discussed and acted upon at some point in the future – it is happening now.

Signs of sea level rise, including incidences of “sunny-day flooding” and storm surges, have shown that the threat is real and imminent. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the coasts of New Jersey and New York, we saw the massive destruction that sea level rise and strengthened storm surges can have on a city.

Fortunately, Boston missed the brunt of the storm, but having seen its impacts, it’s clear that Boston cannot wait until it is too late or until a disaster like super-storm Sandy strikes to begin planning.

It is paramount that we have the necessary groundwork laid out so Boston, and New England at large, is able to adapt to the issue. Through the creation and implementation of forward-thinking policies, the consequences of sea level rise can be lessened. In most cases, with adequate energy and resources devoted to the issue, we will be able to anticipate some of what is to come and preemptively address the areas in which attention is immediately needed.

Some research and planning is already happening. Sea Change Boston has an interactive map which shows a variety of possible scenarios for what Boston might look like – and which areas might be underwater – depending upon the incidence of major storms over time. This map is based upon projections that global sea levels are projected to rise 1-2 feet by 2050. And the Boston Harbor Association put together additional maps showing the impacts of sea level rise to Boston and the surrounding areas if the sea level rises 2.5 feet, 5 feet, or 7.5 feet.

With the Gulf of Maine warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of other ocean areas, we in New England must be prepared with policies focusing on protection, adaptation, and/or accommodation to sea level rise, all of which will be critical in shaping how we respond to this imminent threat. It is only a matter of time before a rising sea level will begin impacting our infrastructure, transportation, and even our safety.

 

 

An Ocean Warming: Climate Change in the Gulf of Maine

The effects of climate change can be seen all over the world – whether it’s the severe droughts in California, rapid sea-level rise in the Indo-Pacific, or stronger storm systems, the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change are seemingly everywhere, and the Gulf of Maine is no exception.

Multiple studies have recently shown that the Gulf of Maine, like most of our planet’s oceans, is warming. However, what sets the Gulf of Maine apart is the alarming rate at which this warming is occurring: Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans.

Granted, the Gulf of Maine has been warming for some time, with a steady rate of about 0.05 degrees per year from 1982 to 2004. But we’re now seeing a substantially accelerated rate in warming, about ten times faster than that – warming by approximately a half-degree per year!

How does climate change impact the Gulf of Maine?

Although scientists are still speculating on the explanation for these accelerated warming trends, there is no question about their negative effects.

  • Countless fish stocks have shifted northwards in search of colder temperatures, leaving fisheries struggling in their absence. And as these species migrate out of the Gulf of Maine, other fish, marine mammals, and seabirds that rely on them for food are now left scrambling, in some instances, to avoid starvation. The Atlantic Puffin, for example, once a critically endangered seabird, is now facing a new challenge: species such as white hake and Atlantic herring – both essential elements in the diets for puffin hatchlings – are seeing a shift in geographical range as they move to colder and deeper waters.
  • Diseases that were never before present in the Gulf of Maine have now carved out their place and threaten species. An epizootic shell disease that plagued southern New England waters for years is now cropping up in the Gulf of Maine and poses a serious danger for crustaceans – primarily the American lobster.
  • Non-native and invasive species like green crabs, longfin squid, and black sea bass have been able to move their way up the coast and into the Gulf of Maine, throwing the delicate balance of the entire ecosystem out of sync.
  • Our coasts are under threat from sea-level rise due to changes in density: As water gets warmer, it expands, presenting small towns and major cities alike with an entirely new set of challenges for the future.
  • And the very chemistry of the Gulf of Maine is transforming. Salinity and acidity levels are changing due to increases in precipitation, the rapid melting of Arctic ice, and the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Chemistry? Sea-level rise? Invasive species? If this all sounds overwhelming, you’re not alone. That’s why we’re introducing this blog series, An Ocean Warming, to explore the impacts of climate change in the Gulf of Maine on the species, industries, and people that depend on its health.

Through regular posts focusing on different aspects of this complex issue, we hope to share insights on what the future and fate of the Gulf of Maine will look like – and how we can understand, mitigate, and adapt to this new reality.

 

The Blizzard of ’78 – 35 Years Later, What Have We Learned?

Sometimes hardy New Englanders take perverse pride in the bad weather we endure. But that didn’t stop us from getting very concerned when Sandy headed our way last October. And it didn’t help to prevent the tragic losses that piled up during the Blizzard of ’78, which formed off the coast of South Carolina 35 years ago today, then pounded New England for two days after that.

The Blizzard of ’78 was really more of a winter hurricane than a blizzard. And not just a hurricane, but a “bomb”  – a meteorological term that refers to how quickly pressure fell during the storm’s formation. People were caught unprepared for the rapidly deteriorating conditions, leading to dozens of fatalities on land and at sea. Not only were thousands of people stranded on the roads, unable to get to safety, but the suddenness of the storm took mariners by surprise as well. In his bestseller Ten Hours Until Dawn, New England author Michael Tougias tells the riveting and tragic story of what occurred as several vessels rushed to the aid of a heating oil tanker that was taking on water after running aground in Salem Sound. The tanker was fine in the end, but the Can Do, one of the boats that attempted to provide assistance, was not – sinking with all hands lost.

The overall devastation from the storm was enormous. Tougias describes the aftermath well:

“In Rockport, cars were flung into the Old Harbor along with a house. Bearskin Neck houses were crushed, then ripped by the seas, including the red wooden building known as Motif #1, a popular subject for artists.”

 

“Motif #1” in Rockport was severely damaged during the Blizzard of ’78. (Photo by Mass.gov)
“Motif #1” in Rockport was severely damaged during the Blizzard of ’78. (Photo by Mass.gov)

 

“Up and down the Massachusetts coast, seawalls were flattened and hundreds of residents became trapped in their houses, encircled by swirling water that prevented them from running to higher ground.”

Particularly hard hit was Revere, just north of Boston and south of Salem… Three homes were totally leveled and several others suffered extensive damage from fire. However, it was the breaching of the seawall that did the most damage… The Beachmont section of Revere saw the worst devastation. Homes were bobbing down the streets, and many people thought they would literally be swallowed up by the sea.”

 

The breaching of the seawall in Revere left extensive destruction on Ocean Ave. (photo by the Boston Globe)
The breaching of the seawall in Revere left extensive destruction on Ocean Ave. (photo by the Boston Globe)

 

One of the reasons the destruction was so extensive from the Blizzard of ’78 was its horribly timed concurrence with an astronomical high tide. You may recall a more recent storm that visited our shores with the same bad timing.

Sandy reset our collective notion of “storm damage” in the Northeast. Most of us will never forget the images that scrolled across our screens that awful night (those of us that didn’t lose power, anyway), of subway tunnels flooding and horrible fires and a dark, so dark, New York City. More than three months later thousands of people are still suffering without heat or homes in Sandy’s aftermath. Nobody was really prepared for the scale of Sandy’s ravages. But Sandy was not a complete surprise. There have been some notable forerunners.

We’ve had our share of big storms on the East Coast. The Blizzard of ’78, of course, stands out. And 1938 is legendary for the Hurricane of 1938, or “The Long Island Express,” which rocketed up the coast at an unprecedented 70 miles per hour, taking out communications as it went, preventing people in its path from getting warning about the cataclysm that was headed their way.

1991 was an especially bad year – bringing us Hurricane Bob, the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history at the time, in mid-August, and the unnamed hurricane that sprang, very bizarrely, from the “Perfect Storm” that fall, which damaged parts of New England even worse than Bob had.

We know these big storms will come our way from time to time. We also know that our seas are rising – simply put, as they get warmer they expand. Disturbingly, we have recently come to understand that the sea is rising much faster in the Northeast than the global average. The ocean is coming closer, and the big storms will keep coming as well.  It’s time to get our act together and plan better for these big storms. We are weather-hardy in New England, but we are also smart enough to get prepared.

We can and should plan ahead. Employing the principles of regional ocean planning will help our coastal communities prepare for the next storm, using tools like the Boston Harbor Association’s model for “no regrets” adaptation to sea level rise, Massachusetts’ Storm Smart Coasts, and NOAA’s Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth, and building on lessons we are learning from our tempestuous history. We need a comprehensive, science-based, and participatory process that allows everyone who will be affected by decisions about our coastal areas to have a say in how we prepare for storms and sea level rise, and how we respond in the aftermath.

Hopefully it will be a very long time before we have to find out how ready we are for the next big storm – how well we have learned from the Blizzard of ’78, from Sandy, Bob, and the others. But, just in case we don’t have long to wait, let’s roll up our sleeves, get prepared, and make a plan for the worst.