MARION – At least three dozen or so residents got an up close look at the present, past, and future of climate change at the Monday, June 13, “Marion’s Future: Preparing for Climate Change” presentation and very little of it was pretty.
Janet Milkman, executive director of the Marion Institute, which sponsored the event along with the Beverly Yacht Club, Sippican Land Trust and the Marion Planning Board, thanked Dr. Jennifer Francis, a member of the town’s planning board, with a doctorate in Atmospheric Science, for helping to spearhead this important event that will help the town “plan ahead, reduce its impact on infrastructure and the environment.”
Francis didn’t waste much time getting to the heart of the matter, calling herself “the bad news gal” when it came to climate change, she said Buzzards Bay’s sea rise – at nine inches since the 1930s – is one of the fastest rising seas in the country. Francis said over the last few decades, the rise in sea level has caused additional erosion, coastal property damage as well as damage to pipes, docking and stonewalls.
“When (Hurricane) Sandy hit New York, it caused $2 billion in damage because the sea level’s rising,” Francis said, noting that the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the worst it’s been in three million years, and “it’s not happening evenly,” impacting high altitude climate the most. She noted a 45 percent melting of the glaciers over the last 1,000 years, 13 percent melting of Antarctic ice sheets, 38 percent thermal expansion and a 4 percent ice loss from Greenland. Francis shared pictures of Austria, a full-landscape of glaciers pictured back in 1875 and barely a hint of those glaciers – or anything white – in a picture taken in 2003, and it’s only worsening. Similar disturbing examples were shown of Greenland, as well, showing patterns of ice melting across the continent, including a staggering change just since 1992, with the entire surface of Greenland melted for the first time in 2012, the first time to do so in 150 years.
“If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, it would raise the sea levels by 20 feet,” said Francis. “It’s a trend to keep an eye on.”
Since 1970, areas like Norfolk, Virginia at nearly nine inches, Atlantic City, New Jersey at eight inches and Charleston, South Carolina and Boston around 4 inches, are seeing the worst of the sea level rising.”
“Over the last five months we’ve had record high temperatures in the arctic, record low sea ice each month; not good,” Francis said. “This is where we are going.”
Dr. Chad McGuire, author of “Adapting to Sea Level Rise in the Coastal Zone: Law and Policy Considerations,” who specializes in Environmental Law with a focus on Climate Change, cited the major issues involving sea level rise at Miami’s South Beach, and how officials are trying to pump water back out to stave off sea level rise. McGuire said places like Marion “have a little bit to worry about.”
McGuire discussed the last major hurricane to hit the area, 1991’s Hurricane Bob, and the devastation it caused, especially along the New England coastline.
“And that was only a Category 2 hurricane,” said McGuire, with Category 1 being the weakest and 5 the most devastating. “It showed how inundated places like Marion could get with a category three or four.”
A cataclysmic storm that wreaks havoc in an area once every century, the 100-year-storm, is overdue in this area, McGuire said. The Hurricane of 1938 remains the closest to that kind of storm to hit this area this century.
“If the sea levels continue to rise, how far is it going to go?” said McGuire. “You may face one or more of these kinds of storms and you have to ask yourself if there is a problem, and if yes, what would the solutions be?”
McGuire discussed flood insurance for coastal areas like Marion and the country’s tendency to help pay area’s devastated by major storms through disaster relief since as far back as 1776.
He said coastal development can be an issue but stressed that from what he saw about Marion, there wasn’t that much land to develop in the town, never mind the waterfront. He talked of the skyrocketing costs of coastal development in places like San Francisco, that, at one time, had the same average house price as a place like Houston, Texas, but that’s long since changed due to high demand.
“You could create a Silicon Valley in Marion,” said McGuire to laughs, matching high level and higher-paying jobs to waterfront homes that fit that same financial bill.
He discussed towns like Edgartown that are being proactive in creating zoning overlay districts which help to protect coastal assets while creating clear incentives, planning now about what the community values and what it wants to incorporate with future concerns, something to consider for Marion.
“Once you have clear planning in place, what happens over time is you have incremental changes, home values and things you care about change slowly and characteristic of Marion are more easily maintained. There are not big sticker shock changes but instead, it’s done over time.”
In the question-and-answer period, one resident brought up the Hurricane of 1938 and how the area has averaged storms like that every 100 years, though there were two major storms of that magnitude in the 1700s.
Francis said there is good probability for a storm like this, though there’s no indication of anything impending over the next few years.
Another resident asked about the predictability of these kinds of storms and Francis said this was a hot research topic right now, with the frequency of these major storms increasing certainly, but other factors make it less clear. One resident discussed the hurricane barrier in New Bedford and what Marion could do to have help like that in an impending storm. McGuire said for places like Marion, there are no sponges for the storm though places like estuaries, wetlands and rivers can help.
“Boston is in the process of moving its generators to the second or third floor and making the first floor a flood flow through,” said McGuire. “You can’t just wait for bad things to happen. It’s inevitable.”
But there are also places, like Long Island, where no easy solutions can be found. McGuire said the federal government has even moved to buying out homes in danger of a major storm impact instead of dealing with its aftermath later. A second person brought up the New Bedford barrier and the potential for a sea wall in Marion. McGuire asked how many times New Bedford has even used that barrier, which was estimated to be just once or twice.
“It’s not just from what’s coming from the sea but what lands on land that wants to go out to sea,” said McGuire. “Look at low-lying areas and look into protecting those areas and then you have a measured approach.”