Tag Archives: coastal wetlands

The State(s) of Sea Level Rise Science

Peaks Island, Maine

Peaks Island, Maine

In early April, I read an issue of a Peaks Island, Maine newspaper. On the front page, a story’s headline caught my eye:  “Sea level rise not caused by climate change, scientists confirm.” At first I assumed it was an April Fool’s joke, but the date was not April 1st. Then I got upset. I read. It seems that the journalist had (mis)interpreted a report on sea levels in Casco Bay that affirmed the sea level has risen for much longer than most people have known about global climate change. In fact, the State of Maine has over 100 years worth of sea level rise data because the City of Portland has tracked sea level in Portland harbor since 1901. That’s valuable data. The University of Southern Maine has conducted a series of studies on sea level rise, sustainability and the economics involved with planning for adaptation. According to the Environmental Finance Center at the Muskie School (USM), “at least 100 coastal New England towns will be impacted by sea level rise and increased storm surge from climate change.” Read about their COAST and Climate Ready Estuary projects here.

The State of Maine published its climate change action plan in 2004. It identified sea level rise adaptation planning as a necessity. In particular, the Maine Geological Survey conducted several pilot projects that assessed coastal wetland migration. The state’s coastal zoning laws and management practices changed several years ago to reflect sea level rise. Read the 2010 report, “People and Nature: Adapting to a Changing Climate, Charting Maine’s Course.” A great list of collaborators contributed to the development of “People and Nature,” including Natural Resources Council of Maine, several state agencies, several cities and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. It’s hard to find on the state’s website because the State Planning Office’s website was moved and merged with those of other departments.

Meanwhile, adaptation planning has moved to the forefront of climate change science in recent years. Sea level rise scientists at NASA, USGS and other agencies engaged in an online chat session about the state of the science for sea level rise and adaptation planning in early April 2013. (You can listen to the discussion after-the-fact.) What I found interesting is that salt marsh ecology and wetlands play such a vital role in our understanding of sea level rise and its implications for coastal systems. Over the past 6 years, I’ve done some research on sea level rise and learned of sea level rise tools and adaptation planning efforts underway all over the country. A hotspot for sea level rise research is the East coast of the United States, where sea level rise is occurring at a faster rate between Cape Cod and the coast of North Carolina—faster than anywhere else in the world.

Leah Stetson photo

Leah Stetson photo

Several other states have begun to plan for sea level rise. Click on the links below to learn more about what states are doing about sea level rise and adapting natural resource management strategies for climate change. In most cases, it’s a collaborative effort.

MA: Mass Fish & Game Adaptation Planning       MA sea level rise planning maps
MA: Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee
NY: New York Sea Level Rise Planning        NY Sea Level Rise Task Force Report 2010
CT: Connecticut Climate Change Adaptation Reports
RI: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: New Jersey Coastal Management Program Sea Level Rise Planning
NJ: Sea Level Rise in New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey Report, 1998
NJ, DE, PA, NY: Delaware River Basin Commission Climate Change Hydrology Report, 2013
DE: Delaware Sea Level Rise Planning & Adaptation
MD: Living Shorelines Program (Chesapeake Bay Trust)
MD: A Sea Level Response Strategy for Maryland (2000)
VA: Planning for Sea Level Rise, Virginia Institute for Marine Science
VA Sea Level Rise Maps
VA: Sea Level Rise Planning at Local Government Level in Virginia
VA: Government Plan for Development of Land Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise
GA: University of Georgia, Sea Grant – Sea Level Rise Planning & Research
FL: Florida’s Resilient Coasts: State Policy Framework for Adaptation (PDF)
FL: Multidisciplinary Review of Current Sea Level Rise Research in Florida  (University of Florida)
MS & AL: Mississippi and Alabama Sea Grant Consortium – Resilience in Coastal Communities
Gulf of Mexico States: Climate Community of Practice: Sea Level Rise Planning
LA: Coastal Protection & Restoration – Recommendations for Sea Level Rise Planning (Includes Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan)
CA: California’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water Resources (2012)
CA: State Resources on Sea Level Rise and Adaptation Planning
CA: Adapting to Sea Level Rise Report (2012)
CA, OR, WA: Sea-Level Rise for the Coasts of California, Oregon and Washington (2012)
OR: A Strategy for Adapting to Impacts of Climate Change on the Oregon Coast (2009)
OR: LiDAR Sea Level Rise Research (NOAA Digital Services)
WA: Addressing Sea Level Rise in Shoreline Master Programs (Guidance) (2007)
WA: Sea Level Rise Assessment: Impacts of Climate Change on the Coast (2007)
AK: Alaska’s Melting Permafrost and Melting Sea Ice (national research)
AK: Climate change impacts in Alaska (EPA)
NC: North Carolina Coastal Federation – Sea Level Rise

A note about North Carolina: Several state agencies, including the Departments of Environment & Natural Resources, Transportation and Commerce, all identified threats and risks from sea level rise in 2010. At the time, the state’s Governor signed a letter confirming this. Two years later, North Carolina’s State Senate passed a law that banned sea level rise adaptation planning based on the current science. The House of Representatives rejected the bill, but a compromised version of the bill called for a new study on sea level rise for North Carolina and a ban on exponential sea level rise predictions in modeling. Read this Scientific American article on NC and sea level rise, and the 2012 USGS study that found increasing sea level rise impacts on the coast between Cape Cod and the Carolinas. See “More unwanted national attention for North Carolina on sea level rise” (2013).

If you’re interested in a good summary of sea level rise policy in states, see this 2012 legislative report by Kristin Miller, et. al. (Connecticut General Assembly). It includes an analysis of sea level rise related policy in ten states (Louisiana, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.)

Update: Check out Nickolay Lamm’s Sea Level Rise Images Depict What U.S. Cities Could Look Like In Future (PHOTOS) – click here. 

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Surging Seas and Hybrid Storms

NASA officials nicknamed Hurricane Sandy “Bride of Frankenstorm.” Strange behavior patterns—hitting the northeast as a mix of nor’easter blizzard and hurricane conditions created a powerful hybrid storm that affected many communities. In Maine, we felt the storm’s most severe impacts the night of the full moon on October 29th. Footage of storm surge on the news looked like the forceful wave action in “Thunder Hole” at Acadia National Park. Throughout New England, New York and New Jersey, many people were still without power when the nor’easter hit this week. Hurricane Sandy’s unusual hybrid classification and other factors set a precedent. Coupled with the tides of the full moon, storm surge was more intense, causing more flooding to occur. Are we likely to see and experience powerful hybrid storms like this in the future? What tools are available to predict storm surge?

Forecasters called Hurricane Sandy a “perfect storm.” View photos of the storm as seen from space. Last winter Strange Wetlands reported on the Red Cross/Red Crescent’sinvolvement in the IPCC report on the link between extreme weather disasters and climate change. This week Climate Central’s Surging Seas tool demonstrated how effects of climate change, including sea level rise and storm surge, made Hurricane Sandy worsethan it might have been otherwise.

Federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NASA have been measuring storm surge for many decades, since the 1960s (see above)—long before most people started talking about sea level rise. According to a NASA presentation on An Analysis of Storm Surge Attenuation using USGS, FEMA and NASA data, there is historical data to support the claim that wetlands significantly reduce storm surge. Wetland scientists in the 1960s asserted that 2.7 miles of wetlands reduced storm surge by 1 foot. More recent data from Hurricane Rita was used to assess the storm impacts to wetlands (such as causing wetland loss) as well as wetlands’ role in lessening the effects of storm surge. Therefore wetland losses along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Louisiana, for instance, and along other areas of coastline on the eastern seaboard, intensified the amount of storm surge during recent hurricanes, such as Hurricane Irene and Sandy. (Fitzpatrick, et. al. 2008) Also see Storm Surge Reduction by Wetlands.

While SLAMM—Sea Level Affecting Marsh Model—may be familiar to you, a tool used in analyzing sea level rise, especially with respect to wetlands, have you heard of SLOSH? Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, (SLOSH) is a tool used to analyze storm surgeHurricane Sandy’s storm surge was mapped before it made landfall. The SLOSH model was applied to Hurricane Sandy prior to Oct. 29th and it analyzed surges of various levels (2 feet, 3 feet, 4 feet, etc.) At most locations, meteorologists predicted unprecedented levels of surgeusing this tool and other analyses. Tools like SLOSH are only as good as the available data. Future budget cuts threaten data collection tools, such as ocean bouysOther storm surge analysis tools were used to predict Sandy’s surge levels and ultimately, citizens were evacuated in areas where the path of the storm surge was predicted on the maps using those models.

Some useful fact sheets and further reading on the importance of wetlands in preventing storm surge are linked below:

Storm surge & wetlands in Louisiana (NWF fact sheet)
Mitigating Storm Surge with Vegetation & Wetlands (Army Corps of Engineers, 2007)
Analysis of Storm Surge Attenuation & Wetlands (NASA) (2008)
The potential of wetlands in reducing storm surge (Ocean Engineering, 2010)
Hurricane Sandy Geospatial Resources (NOAA Digital Coast, 2012)