Jon Beal, center, of the Belfast Climate Crisis Committee talks to two people who came Friday afternoon to the introduction of the High Water Mark Initiative. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — It’s been almost four years since an intense October storm took Belfast by surprise, swamping boats and flooding portions of the city’s waterfront.

The memory of that storm felt fresh Friday afternoon as a group gathered near the Belfast breakwater to talk about the High Water Mark Initiative, a national program designed to create awareness of the coastal flooding that is predicted to continue in the next few decades because of climate change and sea level rise.

“Sea level rise is here to stay,” Anastasia Fischer of U.S. Harbors, a Rockland company that provides tide, weather and harbor information nationwide. “We have to get ready for it, and plan, and bite the bullet, and go forward.”

The potential for flooding and sea level rise was made clear by a new tall wooden post that had three small colored signs on it — flood markers that officials with the initiative program hope will draw attention from passersby.

A marker in Belfast placed through the High Water Mark Initiative shows the water level of the highest flood on record. It also shows where the water levels are predicted to rise in the future under two different scenarios. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The lowest marker, fairly close to the ground, showed the level of flooding caused by Belfast’s storm of record, a winter tempest in January 1978. The second, two feet higher than that, shows how high the water level could be in Belfast in 2050 under the best-case scenario of stabilized fossil fuel emissions. But a third mark, nearly two feet higher than the middle one, showed what might happen if emissions are not stabilized and climate change happens more rapidly.

Belfast is one of several Maine communities that are taking part in the initiative, which is a collaborative effort by local groups and national agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Coastal flood water markers have already been placed in Portland, York and South Portland, with one soon to be unveiled in Scarborough.

“The whole idea of the project was to start the conversation,” Jon Beal, chair of the Belfast Climate Crisis Committee, said. “The purpose is just to raise the idea in people’s minds that ‘Oh, there’s a problem here.’”  

Sheila Warren, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that the problem is becoming more acute. About half of the observed sea level rise in the last century has happened since 1990, she said. In 1978, that storm of record was considered a 100-year storm — one that might happen once a century. But now, with sea level rise, it would be considered a 10-year storm.

Although the markers might be disturbing to some, she said, they are intended to help people realize what’s coming and prepare for it.  

“This is for flood awareness, and for flood risk resiliency,” she said.

Beal said that Belfast is trying to gather even more information about sea level rise by monitoring tides and water levels in the harbor through the use of different types of gauges. One, a small, passive radar unit placed at the end of the breakwater by U.S. Harbors, uses GPS technology to measure water levels. Another tide gauge on the harbor was designed by Belfast Area High School students at a cost of just $100.

These devices should help the city understand what’s happening just offshore and hopefully make better decisions because of it.  

“We need local information,” Beal said.

But Harbor Master Katherine Given, who supports the different initiatives, said that while it’s good to have more knowledge, it’s hard to know exactly what will happen. That was the case for the 2017 storm, which was not well predicted and caught many off guard.

“Who knows what Mother Nature will do,” she said “There’s no guarantees.”