November 21, 2017

Sea level rise could fragment Rhode Island’s coastline

Early explorers found Rhode Island’s coastline looking much like it does today.  Before then, it looked much the same for centuries to the Narragansetts and Wampanoags who lived here.  That’s going to change.

While the Industrial Revolution that began in Rhode Island in the eighteenth century brought our nation great wealth, it also created manmade pollution that began changing our climate.  Climate change causes sea levels to rise, and in the last century they rose more rapidly than they had in the previous 2,000 years.  This rate is expected to accelerate, and the long-familiar outline of Rhode Island will take a new shape.  Rhode Island will become an archipelago.

You can see for yourself.  Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Rhode Island, has created STORMTOOLS.  This online simulation models sea level rise and storm surge.  Plug in the projections, and watch Rhode Island begin to change. 

The first three feet of sea level rise leaves our coast largely recognizable.  Inlets in places like North Kingstown and Watch Hill start to expand.  Ponds and estuaries in places like Westerly Beach and Little Compton start to flood.  And along most of the coast the shoreline begins to push inland.  But we remain mostly intact.

At five feet, we start to see blocks of homes and businesses in places like Providence, Oakland Beach, and Wickford disappear into the sea.

At seven feet we lose the north end of Great Island in South Kingstown and much of historic downtown Newport goes underwater.

As we look to the worst scenarios, the “do-nothing” scenarios,” for which CRMC now projects upwards of 12 vertical feet of sea level rise by 2100, Rhode Island becomes an archipelago of new islands.  A baby girl born today at Women & Infants Hospital will see these changes in her expected lifetime. 

Western Newport becomes a new island, with its own little “Castle Hill Island” sitting just offshore. 

The end of Point Judith and the tip of Little Compton break off from land, to become new small islands. 

A big chunk of Tiverton near Fogland Point carves off into a new island, and Nonquit Pond becomes ocean.

Warwick Neck becomes Warwick Neck Island.

Warren and Bristol become a new island, and get their own little islands.

Of course all the areas that flood to create these new islands are losses to the current owners.  Along the new islands and shores, there emerge new flood zones and “velocity zones” (the name for areas that get hit by waves, not just flooding, in a storm).  Owners in these areas face the risk of having to relocate, and having their property become unsellable.  Well before the tides and storms come, insurance costs for those risks can wipe out a property’s value, or render it unmortgageable.

Looking ahead at this coastal threat, the massive government-backed home loan mortgage corporation Freddie Mac has predicted, “The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”  The authors of that report point out that the Great Recession was abated by property owners who stayed in their homes and kept paying their mortgages, even though their property was figuratively “under water.”  That won’t happen with property that is going to be physically under water.

The carbon we have already pumped into the atmosphere has made some of this sea level rise inevitable.  But we can still avoid the worst-case scenarios if we act now to cut emissions.  We can also ready our homes, businesses, and infrastructure for the advance of the saltwater.  The time to get started is now.  We have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren to understand what’s coming and to help prepare for the future.  It’s up to us to make sure our Rhode Island does not become the Rhode Island Archipelago.

By: Sheldon Whitehouse