, Newburyport, MA

March 7, 2013

Seaside retreat: redefining our coastal communities as the ocean rises

Erika Spanger-Siegfried

---- — Watching our East Coast neighbors recover from Sandy is a sobering exercise.

They’re in the unfortunate position of pioneering our national response to rising seas and more powerful coastal storms, brought to us courtesy of climate change.

But before long, every coastal community will have to ask itself how it will respond to our changing climate and changing coastlines. If talk of the recent erosion on Salisbury Beach is any indication, we, too, have begun asking.

Aside from doing nothing — which, post-Sandy, is no longer possible for many — we have a few broad adaptation options: We can try to defend against storm surge and wave action, accommodate increased erosion and flooding or retreat from at-risk areas.

Of these, my money would not have been on retreat. After all, we place a huge premium on seaside living. Just look at the Interstate 495 beach traffic on any summer Sunday or the tightly packed homes along Salisbury Beach.

But in a post-Sandy world, expect the unexpected.

Recently, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to help homeowners get out of the way, permanently, of rising seas. He plans to use $400 million of federal emergency aid dollars to buy damaged homes at pre-storm, full-market value, destroy them and let the depopulated landscape serve as a coastal buffer from future storms. A system of bonuses aims to encourage buy-outs for entire neighborhoods.

As Cuomo put it, “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns.” Or, Mother Nature aided and abetted by human-induced climate change and rising seas.

Not surprisingly, the early reaction from communities is mixed. In some places, few homeowners are interested. In others, the idea is being embraced. In one badly damaged Staten Island neighborhood, 80 percent of households have agreed to be bought out if the program goes forward. “We don’t have the fight to stay anymore,” a resident told the New York Times.

New Jersey, meanwhile, is rebuilding using new federal flood maps that reflect how far sea level has risen since the 1980s (though not how far it will rise in the future).

Thankfully, retreat is just one option. Preserving natural buffers like tidal wetlands, flood-proofing homes and businesses and elevating structures are some of the ways we can make our communities more resilient. But the reality of rising seas means that the coastline we know could change greatly in our lifetime.

I grew up in Salem, a coastal city where every square foot of shoreline, it seemed, had something built on it. One neighborhood, The Willows, stood out for being surrounded on three sides by the sea and thus so connected to it and so special. (They had their own parades! We envied them.)

For 13 years I’ve lived in Amesbury, so now I envy my friends on Plum Island, where they walk their dogs on the beach and watch the moon rise over the ocean. It’s because of places like this that I get stuck on the prospect of retreating from the coast. In geologic time, they’ve existed for a millisecond, but in human time, these places have been local icons for generations. Some of them are now in harm’s way, but that doesn’t mean folks want to leave. I wouldn’t. Not at first.

On our part of the coast, we’ve avoided the kind of catastrophic damage dealt by Sandy. But with seas nearly a foot higher than a century ago and rising at an accelerating rate, we have reason for concern. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects increases of between 1 foot and 6 feet this century, with many studies clustering in the 4-foot range. How much and how quickly it rises will depend on the additional heat-trapping emissions we put in the atmosphere and how quickly land-based ice melts in response.

Those are stark numbers and we have to deal seriously with their consequences.

The “dealing,” of course, has already begun. What’s happening in New York struck me because of how hard it must be for those people to walk away from their homes; to say: this is no longer a sensible place to live. And because it shows the rest of us that climate change and sea-level rise could force our hand. So, what’s our move?

A new group of local residents is forming to explore this question and to try to motivate thoughtful action (on Facebook: “Sea Rise Newburyport Plus”). Finding the way forward to a climate-resilient coastline will be tricky — we like our shores just the way they are, thanks. But those shores are changing, and we know that doing nothing would be irresponsible.

For many of us, living near the coast is essential, is part of who we are. Dealing with the rise of the sea must also be.


Erika Spanger-Siegfried of Amesbury is senior analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists.