Environment

Study: Northeast faces most U.S. sea rise

New England coast ‘among most vulnerable’ to floods, surges

COURTESY RHODE ISLAND SEA GRANT
THIS DIGITALLY-ALTERED photo illustrates how, given a 3-foot rise in sea level, much of Waterplace Park in Providence would be underwater during an average spring tide of 9.89 feet.
Posted 3/17/09

Rhode Island and other coastal parts of the northeastern United States face some of the greatest risks from rising sea levels caused by climate change, a new study by Florida researchers warns.

Changes to the Atlantic Ocean’s currents because of global warming will cause the ocean to rise by as much as 8 inches more on the New England and mid-Atlantic coast than in other areas by the end of the century, according to a computer-modeling study by researchers at Florida State University (FSU) that was published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience. That extra 8 inches would be on top of the worldwide sea level rise of 3 feet that is frequently forecast.

The study found that “the Northeast coast of the United States is among the most vulnerable regions to future changes in sea level and ocean circulation, especially when considering its population density and the potential socioeconomic consequences of such changes.”

The result will be increased risk from flooding and storm surges, particularly during nor’easters, blizzards and hurricanes.

“This important region will experience some of the fastest and largest sea level rises this century,” the study’s lead author, Jianjun Yin of FSU’s Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies, told Bloomberg News.

“The ocean level isn’t uniform across the ocean,” explained Bloomberg reporter Alex Morales. “Water circulation in the Atlantic serves to keep seas relatively lower along the U.S. East Coast. The system of currents … channels the warm Gulf Stream to the northeast and moves colder, deeper waters southwards. Its effect of lowering U.S. sea levels will be dimmed as warming slows the currents, Yin’s team said.”

Laura Ricketson-Dwyer, public educator and information coordinator for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, said in an e-mail: “The theme of this report echoes much of what the CRMC has been saying about expected sea-level rise – that it will occur.”

Global sea levels have risen more than half a foot over the last 100 years, she said, and the rate of increase is accelerating: from 1961 to 2003, the average rate of rise was 0.071 inches per year, and it was nearly double that, or 0.12 inches per year, from 1993 to 2003.

In addition, Ricketson-Dwyer said land in Rhode Island is subsiding at a rate of roughly 6 inches per century. “Using this and other data, the CRMC is preparing for sea level to rise [by] 3 to 5 feet by 2100,” she said.

“In order to best prepare for the future, the CRMC is currently working on a chapter in the Metro Bay Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) which takes into account expected sea level rise for structures along the upper Narragansett Bay,” she said. The Metro Bay SAMP includes parts of the Bay around Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket and East Providence.

In addition, the CRMC adopted a policy on climate change and sea level rise last year, “and is working to develop standards and regulations to encourage Rhode Islanders to incorporate this knowledge into their structures and infrastructure,” Ricketson-Dwyer said.

Kate Moran, associate dean of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, said the FSU researchers’ “approach is solid … and should be taken seriously.”

Although there are still uncertainties about the effects of melting in both Greenland and Antarctica, Moran noted in an e-mail that the study’s authors predict that such melting would only raise sea levels further, thus “strengthening the main conclusion found here.”

“It’s not just waterfront homes and wetlands that are at stake here,” Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told The Associated Press. “Those kind of rises in sea level, when placed on top of the storm surges we see today, put in jeopardy lots of infrastructure, including the New York subway system.”

Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for Global Change Research at the U.S. Geological Survey, told the AP that New Englanders could eventually find themselves in the same “vulnerability situation” as New Orleans.

The Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies (COAPS), founded in 1996, is part of the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State University. It was established by the the Fla. Board of Regents to promote interdisciplinary research on air-sea interaction, ocean and coupled air-sea modeling, and predictions both of climate changes and associated socioeconomic consequences. Additional information is available at coaps.fsu.edu.

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