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Flooding in Boston’s Long Wharf district during an October 2016 King Tide.

On November 15, at Boston’s Long Wharf, a king tide crested the wharf, flooding streets and walkways just as it did a month earlier. The unusually high tides were due to the supermoon, a rare event in which the moon comes close to the Earth as part of its orbit.

But if you had a crystal ball and could look at the future of Boston’s Long Wharf and other neighborhoods like the Seaport District, it would look a lot like what we’ve seen in recent months from king tides. Except in the future, tides that flood neighborhoods, buildings, and streets will be far more frequent, if not normal.

“King tides provide a glimpse of future everyday water levels,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Sea levels are rising, and will continue to rise, even more rapidly than they already are if global greenhouse emissions aren’t curbed.

Yet in many coastal cities like Boston where elected officials take climate change seriously, residents and businesses still do not seem to be acting with a sense of urgency that match the scale of the threat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 39% of the country’s population lives in coastal counties, a proportion that’s been steadily increasing since the 1960s, according to US Census data. Coastal cities like Boston are more vulnerable to rising sea levels than cities like Portland, Maine that rest on higher ground. It’s difficult to predict exactly when sea level rise will alter the everyday functionality of Boston, but by 2050 some projections predict major threats to the city and other Boston-area communities.

A lack of urgency

In an effort to predict and plan for these threats, the City of Boston in collaboration with the Green Ribbon Commission and UMass Boston, put together a comprehensive report as part of an initiative called Climate Ready Boston. The report examined the future of sea level rise, extreme precipitation, temperature, and coastal storms in the Boston area.

The report found that by 2050, sea levels will have likely risen anywhere between 7.5 and 18 inches. Additionally, the report found that rising sea levels would increase the “tidal range, wave energy, and tidal inundation, resulting in increased erosion of existing geomorphic features and existing or planned coastal engineering works such as flood defenses.”

With severe risks from sea level rise just a few decades away – the lifespan of a typical home mortgage –  it would only make sense for businesses, municipalities, and people living in high risk areas to take steps to protect themselves against sea level rise and extreme weather events. Yet for the most part, a sense of urgency is still missing.

General Electric made waves earlier this year when the company decided to move their world headquarters to Boston from Fairfield, Connecticut. The company officially opened temporary offices on Farnsworth Street in August, with plans to use that location until a full campus can be built at Necco Court, along the Fort Point Channel, according to The Boston Globe.

In accordance with Boston Redevelopment Authority zoning codes, GE took the possible flooding of the area into consideration, and also proposed adding a “solar veil” to the roof and side to help generate power for the 388,700 square foot complex. The company plans to raise the first floor of the new buildings, according to the master plan that was filed with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, “The first level of the New Building will be raised approximately five feet from existing grade in order to anticipate climate resiliency needs.” Should the plans for the new complex be approved, this adaptation would be one of the first of its kind in the quickly developing Seaport District.

Since 2013, property owners in Boston who are proposing new buildings over 20,000 square feet, or renovations over 100,000 square feet must complete a Climate Change Preparedness and Resiliency Checklist. The BRA considers which aspects of the checklist are met before making the decision to either approve or deny a proposed building. This checklist is the “Main tool the city has been able to use so far to push developers to consider climate in their plans,” explained Mia Goldwasser, the Climate Preparedness Program Manager in the City of Boston Office of Environment, Energy and Open Space.

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Projections by Climate Central’s Surging Seas project indicates that four feet of sea level rise (not accounting for storm surges caused by extreme weather) could put the area surrounding GE’s new proposed HQ underwater. While the building itself would be protected thanks to its raised bottom floor, the surrounding area, the area workers and members of the community would need to use to access the building, would not be protected. New England Climate Change Review reached out to GE, as well as the BRA for comment on these projected risks, but neither organization responded.

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As the report from Climate Ready Boston showed, it’s clear that sea levels will rise, and with sophisticated computer generated models, fairly accurate predictions have been made. Once the City had those projections they were able to conduct a city-wide-vulnerability assessment, not only for sea level rise, but for the impacts that heat, extreme weather, and flooding will have on residents, property, infrastructure, and the economy, Goldwasser said. The findings of the assessment, along with recommendations and plans for what steps the city and its residents should take next, are scheduled to be released sometime before the end of 2016.

The tyranny of short-term thinking

Part of the reason climate scientists and other experts have had such a difficult time convincing cities and industries to prepare for the inevitability of sea level rise any earlier is short-term thinking.

“Climate change is a long-term problem, and humans in general aren’t good at thinking long term, it’s just not how we function,” explains Andrea Thompson, senior science writer at Climate Central, “That’s kind of where you need governments and even businesses and big corporations to think in those terms.”

In addition to short-term thinking, swings in political leadership each election cycle hinder the development and implementation of effective climate change mitigation and resilience strategies. Federally subsidized flood insurance rates also enable homeowners and businesses to build (and rebuild) in dangerous flood zones and high risk areas.

“Some people may have had flood insurance but they weren’t paying what the real risk was,” Thompson explains about why homes and businesses were immediately rebuilt following Hurricane Sandy, without consideration of current and future risks. “Some areas were bought out but in some areas they’re actually building back,” a big issue for coastal development, she says.

All of this culminates in hundreds of cities and communities that are not prepared for the worse impacts of climate change, leaving their residents and businesses deeply vulnerable. While Boston is doing its part to prepare adaptation strategies, the impeding impacts of climate change will soon be unavoidable. Recent flooding from king tides is just one warning sign of what’s to come. They may make for great pictures, but they are pictures that will be far more common in the future.

Photo credit: Gwendolyn Schanker

See also:

Rising seas could weaken New England septic systems, contaminating well water in coastal areas 

New England flooding more than doubles in frequency, but scientists surprised by no clear national pattern 

New England tidal marshes are disappearing as sea levels rise, warns new study