Maine’s rising seas prompt adaptation challenges, but solutions possible

Event panelists Peter Slovinsky, Alison McKellar, Kate Cough and Hannah Baranes. Not pictured is Alex MacLean. Photo by Caitlin Andrews.

As Mainers watch the increasing impact of climate change on sea levels, experts at an event in Portland Wednesday night said coastal communities need to act faster to adapt.

About 50 people attended the panel discussion at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, hosted by The Maine Monitor, Colby College’s Buck Lab and GMRI in conjunction with the Monitor’s recent project.The Unstoppable Ocean: 10 Stories from Maine’s Edge.”

“This problem is already here and will only get worse,” said Peter Slovinsky, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey who studies sea level rise and coastal erosion. “So now is the time to act and react.”

Sea level rise, caused by expanding warming waters and melting ice sheets, has accelerated since the 1990s, show federal data. maines climate council says coastal communities should plan for a 1.5-foot rise by 2050 — which would displace nearly half of the state’s dry beaches and result in a sharp increase in disruptive flooding — and 4 feet by 2100.

GMRI researcher Hannah Baranes, who joined the panel Wednesday, said scientists are becoming more certain about the changes that places like Maine can expect in the coming decades. Inflection points related to possible ice sheet collapse are still a large area of ​​uncertainty – but it’s becoming clearer what humans can or cannot achieve in reducing emissions.

Camden Select Board Vice Chair Alison McKellar is seeing firsthand the impact of these emissions and the sea rise they are causing. McKellar has been working to document the worsening storm surges and higher tides that are increasingly inundating Camden Harbor’s seawall and nearby waterfront.

She said this anecdotal, visual evidence helped foster a new consensus in her city.

“I haven’t heard anything lately like, ‘Oh, that never happens in Camden, they don’t overtop the seawall,'” McKellar told the audience on Wednesday. “What we are arguing about now is more, how should we adjust to that?”

According to Slovinsky, there are several ways communities can address the issue. You can work to avoid the rising water; do nothing and let them in; adaptation to rising sea levels; Protection from the effects of the change; or retire altogether.

“We in Maine are going to have to respond in some areas by backing down,” Slovinsky said. “Things get swamped too often and probably this is being driven by economics, but retreat is something that needs to be considered.”

But there are myriad challenges in planning those responses and avoiding unmitigated impacts from flooding, saltwater intrusion and more, the panelists said. Kate Cough, the Monitor reporter who wrote the Unstoppable Ocean series, said she’s found smaller cities often need help accessing planning resources to make informed decisions.

Another problem is the patchwork of visual and anecdotal evidence designed to help people grasp the urgency of the issue. one GMRI programcollecting citizen observations of coastal flooding in Maine aims to help.

Much of the coast, particularly in southern maineis overly fortified with ill-adapted walls, pavement and construction – something photographer Alex Maclean said he was impressed with when capturing it Pictures of the coast by plane for the monitor series.

Small-town New England governments are often not well equipped to respond quickly to such a complex, slow-moving threat.

“There’s definitely a tendency to avoid planning and change for as long as possible,” McKellar said. “Often a lot of it comes down to changing regulations to make it better, and that’s really boring stuff. … People often don’t have the patience for that.”

But she sees signs of hope — such as new multi-billion-dollar federal funds for climate adaptation and increasing political support for “nature-based solutions.” These include restored dunes and swampy shorelines that are cheaper and more flexible to protect against storms, as opposed to rocky seawalls that divert erosive effects on neighbors and inevitably end up being flooded again.

“Change is inevitable – change will happen whether we plan for it or not,” McKellar said. “But if we plan it in a way that benefits biodiversity, habitat and people, we’re going to get a lot of money for it, and it can be for the better. If we’re just going to continue down the same path and fix things, taxpayers will have to spend a lot of their money.”

Viewers from coastal cities agreed that they are already seeing the effects of sea level rise. Lauren Gallagher of Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach said she came to the GMRI event to learn more about what to expect and how communities like hers could adapt.

“We know we can’t change Mother Nature,” Gallagher said, “but we need to see how we can work with her.”

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