, Newburyport, MA


January 22, 2014

The problem: How to protect Plum Island right now

Despite the recent wobble in the frigid polar vortex, climate change and sea level rise are still in full swing. The Atlantic, infused with last summer’s latent heat energy, has recently generated several monster storms that, while sparing us, have lashed Europe with hurricane-force winds, 30-50 foot waves and coastal flooding. While our winter storms last year were devastating, they paled in comparison to the December storms that lit off across the pond. Inevitably, the big storm dice won’t roll in our favor. The question is, how prepared are we for a stormy future?

If we consider our handling of the Plum Island erosion issue as a measure of our ability to define the problem, employ effective solutions and objectively evaluate our efforts, we would have to conclude that we’re not prepared for the challenges posed by climate change and sea-level rise. Understandably, our efforts have been reactionary and emotional, focusing on short-term, crisis-oriented solutions driven by political pressure, rather than science. There needs to be a better way to manage this process than to constantly react to the crisis.

While states of emergency create sympathy for our situation, they also create an aura of fear, raise flood insurance rates and make banks leery of writing mortgages. The cumulative effect is dropping property values, which is good for no one. A discussion of the bigger picture, namely long-term climate trends and their impacts on our local area, needs to happen. The data describing our future exists, but we need to examine and acknowledge it.

In the long term (maybe shorter than we would like), sea level rise projections suggest that Plum Island will slowly, and quite painfully for all, roll itself over. In other words, waves and wind will push the sands to the mainland, leaving the house lots behind — as is happening with Dauphin Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Though this won’t likely happen tomorrow or even in the next several decades, slowly, over time, all house lots will eventually be lost.

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