The Heat Is Online

Sea Level Rise Threatens Massachusetts Coast

Storm scenario for 2100: havoc on Mass. coast

By Scott Allen

The Boston Globe

Aug. 28, 1998

New England appears likely to dodge the worst of Hurricane Bonnie, but if sea levels continue to rise as a result of global warming, the destruction wrought by future storms could wipe out many seaside oases, according to a sobering animation released yesterday by an environmental research group.

The video, produced by the National Environmental Trust, suggests that a three-foot rise in sea levels - which could happen within 100 years at projected rates - would make the $1 billion in damages from the last big hurricane to hit New England, Bob in 1991, seem trivial by comparison.

Edgartown, where President Clinton sailed with Walter Cronkite earlier this week, would be almost completely submerged beneath the storm surge, while low-lying locations such as the South Shore and Cape Cod also would be inundated, causing massive erosion.

``It's impossible to quantify in dollars and cents some of the impacts of global warming,'' said George Abar, vice president of the National Environmental Trust. ``But we're trying to show with this report that it's not needed. It's a fool's errand ... to put a dollar value on Nantucket.''

Scientists agree that even a slight increase in air temperature causes sea levels to rise as warming ocean waters gain volume from melting glaciers and ice caps. Global sea levels have risen 4 to 10 inches over the past century, partly as a result of a 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperatures.

A United Nations-backed panel of 2,000 scientists predicts that the trend will accelerate over the next century, raising sea levels another 10 to 37 inches if nothing is done to curb the release of gases that cause heat to build up in the atmosphere.

Until now, however, the focus in the sea-level debate has been on the land that would be permanently inundated. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Massachusetts would lose 250 square miles of dry coastal land, and much more beach and wetland, if sea levels rise just two feet, the agency's best guess for the next century.

The greater danger may come from extreme weather, including category 2 hurricanes such as Bob that strike southern New England about once a decade. In such a storm, the rise in sea levels would be compounded by a storm surge that would make high tide 10 to 15 feet higher than usual.

Even worse would be the 130 mile per hour winds of a category 3 hurricane, three of which struck New England from 1938 to 1954. These devastating hurricanes deliver twice the storm surge of a category 2 storm.

``We're talking about massive flooding versus the kind of isolated stuff we had with Hurricane Bob,'' which destroyed 32 houses, said David Vallee, hurricane program leader for the National Weather Service in Taunton.

If sea levels rise three feet, and a category 3 storm hits, Vallee predicted, the erosion would be so intense that ``you're looking at coastal property on Route 6'' that wends along Buzzards Bay from Westport to Wareham.

The National Environmental Trust video, which deliberately focused on tony Edgartown in hopes of getting the attention of vacationing President Clinton, assumes that nothing is done to stop global warming, and that coastal officials do not build seawalls or other armor that would reduce the waves' effect.

A three-foot sea-level rise would permanently inundate the barrier beach that protects Edgartown as well as the northwest end of Chappaquiddick Island, which protects Edgartown harbor. Many of the elegant, expensive waterfront homes would be either flooded out or placed in the direct path of ocean storms.

During a category 2 storm, virtually all of the heavily populated parts of Edgartown would be under water, leaving just a few islands.

Though dramatic, the predicted damage to Edgartown would be less than at many other coastal locations that face the open Atlantic. The town borders relatively sheltered Nantucket Sound, which is nestled between the Vineyard, Cape Cod and Nantucket.

Wesley Tiffney Jr., director of the University of Massachusetts field station on Nantucket, said the worst damage would occur in places such as Nantucket and parts of Cape Cod, sandy shores that have no land mass between them and open ocean.

Tiffney, one of several scientists who joined in releasing the simulation, said erosion is already chipping away at the south and east of Nantucket, where entire streets and parts of the neighborhood of Siasconset have dropped into the sea.

If sea levels rise three feet, said Tiffney, ``I would give Nantucket 400 years'' before the island disappears.

EPA regional administrator John DeVillars said the video should spur the federal government to take action to prevent global warming, thought to result from burning oil and coal as well as other human activities that release carbon dioxide.

``Many of the areas and ways of life that define this part of the country are imperiled by global warming,'' said DeVillars, estimating that sea-level rise will erase 130 to 200 acres of New England coast annually. ``We need to address the causes.''

Abar of the National Environmental Trust, an environmental research organization backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, said Congress has blocked efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, with one member even attempting to prevent the EPA from holding public meetings on the issue.

Leading Republicans in Congress continue to argue that fears of global warming are exaggerated, and that the cost of reducing US use of oil and coal would devastate the economy.

``It's been a very one-sided debate ... There's very little discussion of the cost of doing nothing,'' said Abar.

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.