, Newburyport, MA


March 7, 2013

Seaside retreat: redefining our coastal communities as the ocean rises


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.

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