May 21, 2019
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Look ahead to the vulnerability of Maine’s coast

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Caleb Lavoie, of Dayton, Maine, front, and Curtis Huard of Arundel, Maine, leap out of the way as a large wave crashes over a seawall on the Atlantic Ocean during the early stages of Hurricane Sandy, on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in Kennebunk, Maine.

More than a thousand islands worldwide could become “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century because of rising seas, according to research published Wednesday.

The threat is twofold, according to the study that focused on a part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Based on current greenhouse gas emission rates, the rising level of seawater is expected to completely inundate many of the islands in the long term. More immediately, a regular overflow of saltwater is likely to contaminate the low-lying islands’ supply of drinking water.

Some flooding happens now, but more frequent overflows, as waves crash farther ashore, could prevent freshwater aquifers from recovering between flooding events, the researchers found in the study supported by the U.S. military. The climate-change-driven threats could become severe by the 2050s.

The research should remind people of the vulnerability of coastlines and islands not just in the Pacific Ocean but around the world, including here in Maine.

Today, the sea off Maine’s coast is rising at a rate of about 1.9 millimeters per year, far faster than any time in the past 5,000 years, according to the 2015 report “Maine’s Climate Future” by the University of Maine.

The state is protected by many rocky outcroppings along the coast, but other areas are likely to experience degradation. At least 40 percent of Maine’s coast is vulnerable to increased erosion caused by higher sea levels, according to an analysis by the Maine Geological Survey and the then-Maine State Planning Office.

Putting aside federal regulations, given the Trump administration’s acts to undermine environmental protection policy, there are ways for local people to prepare their properties along the coast. Maine may not be washed away like many of the Marshall Islands, but it is expected to withstand damage.

The Maine Sea Grant and University of Maine Cooperative Extension have compiled information on initiatives undertaken in coastal communities to build resilience to storms, rising seas and changing fisheries, and they offer lessons for towns and individuals.

For instance, one man in Old Orchard Beach turned old cottages into one taller building set on piers, to allow water to flow underneath if a storm surge broke through a nearby and newly buttressed sand dune. And homeowners in Kennebunk used grant money to move their house 40 feet back from a receding bluff.

People can learn more about how to assess the threats most relevant to their property and prepare ahead by visiting The Coastal Hazards Guide has checklists to help homeowners recognize what’s happening and lists the pros and cons (and costs) of various responses.

A common refrain throughout the guide is this: “Speak early and often to town officials and state agency staff.” There’s a practical reason why: Improvements to buildings and land often require permits and may be subject to local ordinances. Officials can help property owners navigate the regulations.

There could be another effect of reaching out: If a critical mass of people seek solutions, perhaps decision makers will do more to prepare for what’s ahead. Often it isn’t until the threat becomes imminent and personal that widespread changes begin.

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