, Newburyport, MA

January 30, 2013

Sea level rise: It's real

As I See It
John Harwood

---- — We’re going under the premise here that sea level rise is real; this is not a debate.

That is how Ron Martino began the first sea level rise gathering of some 30 area residents on Jan. 14 at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center.

They accepted his premise.

That is no small thing, when you consider that it took Sandy to make climate change real for many on the East Coast. Here we were meeting on the Plum Island Turnpike, on the way to a place where folks have just had a glimpse of the harm a storm like Sandy would do if it struck this barrier beach: widespread destruction far beyond the erosion of a few beachfront homes.

Climate change is no easy thing to get your mind around, involving as it does our entire earth, and all its nations and all their people plus the science and the inevitable uncertainty about the future.

So let’s take it more slowly, with a focus on an aspect of global warming that affects we who live on the salty shadow of the Atlantic Ocean, one of the earth’s great bodies of water.

We can leave the reasons why — the science — aside for now, not because it isn’t important or because it isn’t solid, but because we’re mostly citizens, not scientists, and coming to grips with what is becoming the end of the earth as we’ve known it is a big job.

Sea level rise is simple. The temperature of the earth rises a little, ice melts, the oceans rise a little. What’s the big deal?

Expectations, that’s what.

We expect the climate to be predictable within established boundaries, and we live accordingly. We expect that when the ocean rises, it will fall back again, like the tide. We expect to return to normal after a storm, repairing the damage.

That’s not what’s happening.

The night before this first sea level rise meeting, I walked through debris the tide left on the Merrimack River boat launching ramp beside the Black Cow, Newburyport, noticing how the restaurant was mostly built over the water on pilings.

As I enjoyed my dinner, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t take much for my feet to get wet during an astronomical high tide.

Some folks at the sea-level rise gathering had been having similar thoughts, having just seen storm-driven salt water in places where they had never seen it before.

We sat in a circle — in a two-dimensional version of the earth — and considered two questions. First: How did we envision the best-case scenario for how our community will be prepared for sea level rise? A report on all the answers will be available soon.

The second question was: Who needs to be involved to unite area communities and cope? As the responses were listed, it became clear that the one-word answer was: Everyone, from bankers to homeowners, from scientists to faith community leaders.

Serious stuff, to be sure, but there was still a place for a smile or even a laugh, as when I introduced myself as someone who lived in Newbury on High Road, which doesn’t seem very high any more. We’ll need to retain that sense of humor as we move forward.

The 17th century settlers thought High Road deserved the name and saw it as a place to build farmhouses and barns for the salt hay harvested from the marsh that stretched all the way to the dunes, barriers that would help protect them from the ocean they had crossed to come here.

Come to think of it, we’re already used to a threat of a different kind: the nuclear power plant in Seabrook. However, sea level rise isn’t just a threat; it’s more of a promise.

Sea level rise is a promise, because it’s not something that could happen. It’s something that is happening. As Ron Martino said, we need to accept the premise that it is real and make our best effort to prepare for it.

We’re familiar with the sign on the Plum Island Turnpike that proclaimed: No evacuation possible in regard to Seabrook Station.

Today, we need to apply that thought in a new way that says there’s no running away from the need to prepare for sea level rise.

It’s real.


John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.