Coastal property owners wary of climate change, unwilling to pocket remedies

Posted Aug. 15, 2009, at 5:51 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — An overwhelming majority of southern and midcoast Maine coastal property owners surveyed by researchers expressed serious concerns about the potential impacts of climate change on their area.

But in an indication of the challenge facing both scientists and policy makers, most respondents said they were unsure about what can and should be done to prevent loss of valuable coastal land due to more rapid erosion, sea-level rise and stronger storms.

And property owners expressed little interest in digging deeply into their own pockets to mitigate the effects of climate change, preferring instead grants or for local towns to take the lead.

The survey of 548 coastal residents was conducted last year by Maine Sea Grant in collaboration with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, UMaine’s Center for Research and Evaluation and the Maine Coastal Program. More than 50 town officials in 11 communities from Kittery to the Rockland area also participated in a separate poll.

Nearly 86 percent of participating property owners indicated they were either concerned or strongly concerned about how climate change could impact the Maine coast during the next century. More than 80 percent of respondents also said it was important for both the government and individuals to prepare for those impacts.

But participants were more divided about whether they are already seeing erosion and signs of sea-level rise and higher tides — all likely impacts from a warming climate.

Between 20 and 30 percent said they have not observed such impacts on nearby shorelines, and nearly three-quarters of those people didn’t expect to in the next decade. Approximately one-third of respondents reported already experiencing some impacts, primarily from increased erosion.

Regardless of whether participants believed they were seeing evidence of global warming or not, the majority of respondents indicated that they believe climate change will alter the Maine the coastline in the near future.

“They at least understand that it is very likely that there is going to be action that needs to be taken,” said Kristen Grant, a marine extension associate at Maine Sea Grant who helped coordinate the surveys.

“I was very encouraged [by] the fact that people were largely as aware as they were and that they didn’t need a lot of basic climate change information,” Grant added.

Erosion, landslides and damaging storms are all natural occurrences along the Maine coast. But scientists believe that global warming linked to the burning of fossil fuels will only exacerbate those problems.

As sea levels rise, tides and storm surges will reach farther inland, causing additional erosion and landslides. Scientists are also predicting that rising global temperatures will increase the frequency and strength of large, damaging storms.

Manmade constructs, such as sea walls and jetties, can also accelerate the destruction of Maine’s relatively small mileage of sandy beaches as well as damage sand dunes and coastal marshes.

While most respondents indicated an awareness of climate change, the surveys indicated a potential disconnect between awareness of the problem and willingness to take the difficult and likely costly steps to address it. Few respondents said they had taken any steps, other than consulting floodplain maps.

More than 60 percent of respondents said they would not be willing to move buildings farther away from the shoreline. At the same time, more than two-thirds said they would rebuild their coastal homes — albeit with more storm-resistant technologies, this time — if it were destroyed due to a severe weather event.

When it came to money, 29 percent of respondents said costs were too high to take actions to help protect their property from erosion, rising seas or other potential effects of global warming. Another 27 percent said they did not have enough information to make such decisions.

Forty-seven percent of respondents indicated they would not be willing to use low-interest loans to help pay for such improvements. Make that money available in the form of grants, however, and 47 percent said they would be “highly motivated.” And two-thirds would be “motivated” or “highly motivated” to take action if their local town leads the effort.

Participants also expressed doubts or a lack of information about the effectiveness of various types of measures, such as rebuilding dunes and beaches, elevating homes or new regulations.

In contrast, 72 percent of town officials who participated in their survey indicated that they expect to take actions related to climate change within 2 years.

The surveys were conducted as part of a larger effort by Maine Sea Grant and Oregon Sea Grant to examine the impacts of climate change on Maine’s coastline and to encourage dialogue between property owners and policy makers. The two Sea Grant programs have also produced five documentary films on the topics.

Additionally, the report — entitled “Building a Resilient Coast: Maine Confronts Climate Change” — aims to help the scientific and university community get a better handle on what type of information the public needs and the best way to relay that information.

“There needs to be a lot of demonstration projects and a lot more factual information given out to property owners about what their options are,” Grant said.

The five-part documentary series, which is available for free online or on DVD, features segments about steps property owners and towns can take to reduce the potential effects of climate change.

“There are things you can do, and they may cost money, and these are difficult decisions. But we cannot wait,” Steve Dickson, a coastal geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, said in a statement. Dickson has produced maps on bluff stability and sea-level rise predictions aimed at helping inform property owners.

“It’s time to partner up and find solutions. By treating the shore as a living system, entire neighborhoods can protect themselves and prepare for the next storm.”

The full report and documentaries are available online at www.seagrant.umaine.edu/

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

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