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The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called a new federal report on sea level rise “a global wakeup call.” How many more wakeup calls do we need?
Communities along Maine’s coast certainly don’t need another report to remind them of the alarming realities of sea level rise. Those realities are already at our front door.
Just look at the way exceptionally high tides are already causing problems at the wastewater treatment facility in Blue Hill. As the BDN’s Ethan Genter reported in January, plans to shore up the facility are expected to cost in the millions of dollars. And it is not just Blue Hill that is impacted by this one example of infrastructure issues caused by rising seas.
“The other eight towns on the peninsula are all affected by one little wastewater facility in Blue Hill,” said Randy Curtis, a member of the Blue Hill sea level rise task force.
Cities and towns up and down the coast are increasingly running into challenges like this. Bath, no stranger to coastal flooding, is seeing that threat get more severe and property values are going down as sea levels rise. Damariscotta has been working to safeguard its downtown from the river that shares its name. Just this past week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan was in Saco highlighting the importance of federal funds to help make Maine communities more resilient in the face of mounting climate impacts.
“The risk of raw sewage overflowing in the Saco River is a threat to the community,” Regan said on Feb. 14.
The next day, NOAA and other agencies released the new report, which predicts the U.S. will experience as much sea level rise between now and 2050 as it has in the previous 100 years. The report predicts a rise of 1.4 feet by 2050 across the U.S. coast, with flooding expected to happen 10 times as frequently as it does now. New England and the Gulf of Mexico are expected to see some of the highest flooding.
This projection of 1.4 feet is similar to an estimate from Maine’s 2020 climate plan of a 1.5 foot increase by 2050. State marine geologist Peter Slovinsky told BDN reporter Lori Valigra that the difference between these two projections is not significant.
Again, we have a new report emphasizing alarm bells that should already be ringing. This isn’t a theoretical problem for coastal Maine; it’s already here.
In early 2020, the BDN held a series of climate conversations, including one about coastal resilience and sea level rise. Susie Arnold, a marine scientist at the Island Institute in Rockland, explained then how cities and towns were already wrestling with rising seas impacts and planning.
“It may be that their critical infrastructure, like their wastewater treatment plant, is already being inundated at king tides. Maybe their entire downtown is being impacted, like Vinalhaven and Damariscotta,” Arnold said. “Or maybe their freshwater aquifer, their only source of fresh drinking water, like Monhegan, is vulnerable to being impacted with a few feet of sea level rise, Or maybe they’re sitting pretty — they think they’re high up — but low and behold, that access road that brings them to their business or their home is already being inundated during high tides and is very vulnerable to being inundated more frequently with sea level rise.”
Repeated reports and warnings can also make sea level rise and other impacts of climate change feel inevitable. And some of it is at this point, unfortunately. But we can’t let the seemingly constant wakeup calls lull us to sleep, as if there’s nothing we can do to blunt these impacts down the road.
As NASA explains, “Global sea levels are rising as a result of human-caused global warming.” And this rise happens primarily because of added water from melting ice sheets, and because seawater expands as it warms. Human activity is causing the problem, and must be part of the solution.
Federal infrastructure investments and ongoing work at the state and local level to plan for and adapt to rising seas are critical elements of the response. Even more critical is the imperative to reduce the carbon emissions that are driving these changes we are already seeing in Maine and around the world.