Water on the Rise

There is a wonderful interactive global map where you can zoom way in – far enough in, even, to see Rhode Island. It’s at seeing.climatecentral.org/#11/41.6988/-71.1681 (or just go to seeing.climatecentral.org and start zooming).

In playing with the map, which inspired the graphics shown in these pages, it looks like an average rise of 4 degrees (F) in temperature would cause Barrington and Warren to become a small set of islands. We’d lose Blithewold and PappaSquash – and all the great pubs – in Bristol. Eastern Warwick would become a Jamestownian island and much of the East Greenwich oceanside would disappear. The towers in Narragansett would be accessible only by boat, and Watch Hill would become Watch Bay. The Ocean Mist’s retaining wall concerns would be replaced by a need for large-scale flotation devices.

We asked Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, a state agency tasked with tracking and preserving our coasts, to reality check this information, which is based on reports released by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). “Some of those levels are pretty far out, but most would agree we are going to reach a water level rise of about 10 feet by the year 2100.

“One of the big issues we have is that global estimates don’t necessarily predict regional effects. Water levels will change differently in different regions. Along the mid-Atlantic, for example, the land also is sinking. This subsidence – and there’s subsidence to a lesser extent in New England – will add about .7 or .8 meters over that time.

“Another consideration is that we sometimes have astronomical high tides. Those don’t necessarily move the shorelines, but they’re important to factor in when considering built environments – they add about 2 feet to the water level you need to build above.”

We asked about the parts of RI in this map that seem to disappear. “There might be some variation, depending on human intervention. Sea walls and raised construction could counter some of the effects of rising water. But there are areas that would face serious challenges – the areas you mention,” explains Fugate. “Our ports – both Quonsett and Providence. Parts of downtown Providence and Newport would be redirected, and the East Bay – the Wampanoag Trail, for example — would be completely submerged.”

Of course, shorelines have always moved about – just ask Pangaea. But to put the anticipated surge in context, during the last 80 years we saw an overall rise of about 10 inches. Over the next 80, we’re looking at 10 feet.

And the die is already cast for that. Even if we curtail emissions next week, there will be a lag in the effect. “The ocean absorbs quite a bit of energy. But as that ocean mass warms, there’s a momentum that will take some time to redirect.” Combating global warming will, hopefully, affect the future beyond that, and determine whether these effects are multiplied.

Locally, this also has an impact on regional insurance rate maps. “Many of the regulations required to qualify for flood insurance are misleading building owners, leaving them thinking that their construction will be safer from a flood perspective than it’s really likely to be,” says Fugate. “Some areas in South County are probably underestimating the level by 6 to 8 feet. Even with safety margins, a 3-foot wave will take your building out. So people are being told to build to levels where that wave will take their construction out.” (For details, see the recently published paper, XXX.)

In terms of national policy, we wonder if there isn’t a scheme rather like Lex Luthor’s from the first Superman film, afoot somewhere. Some subprime real estate that will suddenly become waterfront — start speculating! But remember that even the more aggressive estimates of global warming have us only going up a few degrees per decade – you have about 40 years, if no one corrects the problem (and that’s looking frighteningly likely), before you see a rise like that described here. However, the effects of global warming that have already taken root will carry us at least 1 to 2 degrees warmer before any corrections can be made. In that case, look for sizeable chunks of the south coast, East Greenwich, Warwick, Warren and Providence herself to get submerged.

And if you’re expecting Social Security to still be around when you plan to retire to someplace warm, be warned. Florida’s likely to disappear almost completely in this scenario. So to the age-old question, “Will the world end in ice or fire?” the answer might be water.

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