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CRMC Climate Change Adaptation Actions

James Boyd

Climate change is making itself known around the globe in numerous manifestations. Warming oceans, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, extended heat waves and droughts, and abnormally heavy precipitation with extended duration are creating floods of historic magnitudes, among other climate induced changes. From a coastal zone management perspective, perhaps no other factor associated with climate change is more problematic than sea level rise and its impacts along the coastline. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) continues to be concerned about the impacts that climate change and sea level rise are having on our coastal communities and has taken actions to address this issue.

Rhode Island and other coastal areas face huge challenges in adapting to sea level rise in the coming years. Climate change and sea level rise will profoundly change the shoreline we know today. Sea level has already risen nearly 10 inches at the Newport, R.I. tide station since 1930 and is projected to be over three feet by 2100. Inland areas that used to be flooded only on rare occasions are now being flooded more regularly on the monthly high tides as a result of increasing sea levels. Coastal storms and their storm surges are now impacting more properties because rising sea levels allow flooding to reach farther inland. In addition, coastal shorelines are rapidly changing with increased erosion due to sea level rise. Beaches are retreating inland, exposing residential and commercial properties and public infrastructure like roads, waterlines and sewer pump stations to more potential damage. The terms shoreline erosion, sea level rise and coastal flooding are now much more on the minds of our State’s citizens, especially following the devastating impacts of Super Storm Sandy this past October.

The CRMC adopted its Climate Change and Sea Level Rise policy as part of Section 145 of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Plan (RICRMP) in January 2008. The policy specifies that the CRMC will implement climate change throughout the RICRMP, where appropriate, to prepare the State in its adaptation efforts and help to develop coastal resiliency. The findings within Section 145 indicate that, based on scientific observations and modeling, we can expect an increase in sea level of between three and five feet by the end of this century. More recent scientific information confirms these earlier findings for sea level rise projections. Dr. Jon Boothroyd, a coastal geologist at the University of Rhode Island, has been on the forefront of monitoring sea level rise in R.I. and has worked closely with the CRMC in helping to provide the scientific information needed to plan for future changes in the coastline and address shoreline erosion, especially along our beaches.

In addition to its adoption of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise policy, the CRMC has been actively engaged in numerous committees and workgroups to assist in the State’s effort to confront climate change and develop an adaptation action plan. As part of the General Assembly’s formation of the Climate Change Commission in 2011, the CRMC serves on two of its subcommittees: Natural Resources and Habitat, and Key Infrastructure and Built Environment. CRMC staff members, along with other state agencies and entities, are assisting these subcommittees of the Commission to develop reports and baseline conditions data. Eventually the work of these subcommittees will be used by the Commission to generate a state-wide adaption action plan. The work of the Climate Change Commission will also provide key information to the CRMC to incorporate into the state coastal management program.

The CRMC, working with partners at the URI Coastal Resources Center/RI Sea Grant, the URI Environmental Data Center and Department of Geosciences, the Statewide Planning Program and The Nature Conservancy, developed a pilot project in 2011 with the Town of North Kingstown to evaluate sea level rise impacts and vulnerability of coastal properties and public infrastructure as well as salt marsh migration. The project resulted in the development of an online state-wide digital elevation model using a compilation of existing light detection and radar (LiDAR) datasets and a bathtub model for sea level rise scenarios of 1, 3 and 5 feet, along with the 1938 hurricane surge. In addition, saltmarsh migration was assessed under these scenarios using the Sea Levels Affecting Marsh Migration, or SLAMM, model. All these mapping products are available on the RI Sea Grant webpage: http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/projects-2/north-kingstown-building-coastal-resilience/. More importantly, this information is helping North Kingstown better prepare for the future by using the information to plan future public infrastructure improvements and public safety measures.

An example of coastal marsh migration with 3-feet of sea level rise in Wickford Cove, North Kingstown

Based on the success of the North Kingstown pilot project, the CRMC applied for and received in August 2012 a National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant under the Coastal Ocean Climate Adaption program. This NOAA grant is funding a collaborative effort between the CRMC, URI Coastal Resources Center/RI Sea Grant, The Nature Conservancy and the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to evaluate sea level rise impacts to coastal marshes for all of the State’s 21 coastal communities. The information developed from this new effort will assist the state and local communities in planning to protect important natural resource and economic assets.

The CRMC also adopted Shoreline Change maps in 2007. These maps are aerial photographs with erosion rates provided along shoreline segments at 100 meter intervals and cover the entire Rhode Island shoreline, with the exception of Block Island. Block Island, however, will be added in the near future. The maps are available on the CRMC website at: http://www.crmc.ri.gov/maps/maps_shorechange.html. This work was completed by Dr. Boothroyd and a graduate student, Rachel Hehre, to show how the shoreline has changed since 1939. In the last decade serious coastal erosion has occurred along some shoreline areas. Most noticeably and recently in the news is the erosion problem evident along the Matunuck shoreline in South Kingstown. The headland beach has eroded so severely that commercial and residential structures, along with a segment of Matunuck Beach Road, are threatened by undermining and are in danger of toppling into the ocean. During Super Storm Sandy, several cottages at nearby Carpenter’s Beach washed out into the ocean, while many more cottages were damaged by storm surge and pounding waves. A plan has been prepared to move the front two rows of cottages back into the upland area of the property and create more beachfront as a storm buffer. The Town of South Kingstown is also planning to move its current beach facility in Matunuck to a more inland location to minimize its risk to storm damage. These are examples of adaptation efforts to reduce vulnerability to sea level rise.

Damage at Carpenter’s Beach, Matunuck from Super Storm Sandy

The CRMC has developed draft Experimental Coastal Erosion Control regulations that will provide property owners in limited areas of Matunuck and Misquamicut to install experimental techniques on a temporary basis to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing shoreline erosion. A public workshop has been scheduled for early March to provide public input on the draft regulations, which are expected to be adopted this spring. Concurrently, the CRMC is working on a longer-term solution by embarking on a new Special Area Management Plan (SAMP). It will be called the Shoreline Change (Beach) SAMP with a public informational meeting to be scheduled soon. The initial work of the Beach SAMP will provide the scientific data and information necessary to develop state policies for addressing coastal erosion throughout the State, especially along our vulnerable south shore and Block Island. The Beach SAMP will evaluate coastal inundation as a result of sea level rise and storms, shoreline erosion, and recommendations and methods to address these impacts. Difficult and costly decisions will have to be made. Beach nourishment, retreat, and in some cases fortification with structural protection will be balanced with protecting public and private investments, the public’s right to access the shoreline, and our important coastal resources.

In addition to the efforts described above, the CRMC has been working with numerous partners on other climate change initiatives, as follows:

The forthcoming Shoreline Change (Beach) SAMP will be another effort led by the CRMC that will be focused on obtaining the scientific data and information necessary to support sound policy decisions to address coastal erosion and inundation problems. Using a similar approach as was used in developing the Ocean SAMP, we expect this new effort will again become a national model for dealing with coastal zone management issues, in this case the adaptation to climate change-induced impacts along our shoreline. The CRMC, working with the many involved state agencies and other partner groups, will help to keep the public and decision-makers informed on sea level rise and coastal erosion issues, especially as conditions change with time. We will also provide updates and engage the public on adaptation efforts being pursued to address the many challenges that face us in the coming decades.

James Boyd is a Coastal Policy Analyst at the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council

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