A woman runs along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean at Willard Beach at sunrise in South Portland in this May 18, 2020, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Sea level rise is one of the many effects of climate change that is already visible in Maine, a state with 120 coastal communities. By 2050, the state will likely see between 1.1 to 1.8 feet of sea level rise, en route to 3 to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by year 2100, according to the most recent projections by Maine climatologists. 

To unpack what the rising sea level means for Maine communities and ecosystems, the Bangor Daily News hosted a virtual event on Aug. 13, bringing together five experts to share their work on the topic. The webinar was the first of four BDN Climate Conversations, which will help shape our coverage of climate issues. 

The conversations bring together experts from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and local subject matter experts. 

During the event, which drew 120 people, attendees posed questions about sea level rise to the panelists. Here are some of their biggest questions.  

Mike Coffin of Surry: Does the rate of sea level change vary along the Maine coast, and if so, why?

Tide gauges that measure the rise and fall of the tides at specific locations along the Maine coast show a similar rate of sea level rise along the entire coast of Maine, said panelist Stephen Dickson, a marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey.

Dorothy Odell of Belfast: Predictions about sea level rise were assumed to be gradual, but isn’t it possible that there will be a precipitous and rather sudden rise sooner as the Arctic heats up and land-based glaciers dissolve? 

Global warming is causing the sea level to rise in two ways. Glaciers and ice sheets worldwide are melting and adding water to the ocean and the volume of the ocean is expanding as the water warms.

“Over the last 25 years or so, the world has seen an increase in the rate of sea level rise, and we’ve seen that acceleration here in the Gulf of Maine,” Dickson said. “The current rate is about a foot [of sea level rise] per century, and it’s faster than anything we saw back in the 20th century.”

That trend is expected to continue, though scientists believe it will depend on future rates of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Marijo Lewandowski of Glendale, New York: Is anything happening around community action in Down East Maine as far north as Washington County?

Yes. For example, the town of Machias has examined its vulnerability and is working on engineering solutions, Dickson said. 

Last year, Machias acquired a former motel and demolished it as part of an effort to ease the effects of recent flooding due to sea level rise of downtown properties along Route 1. The project was funded by a $163,000 donation from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. The town has also applied for and received some grant funding to look into ways it can mitigate flooding along that low section of Route 1, and is looking into establishing a walking path along the river and perhaps even a berm that will protect the road from floods.

Mary Kellogg of Hampden: Are there information resources relevant specifically to any anticipated impacts on the more inland freshwater tidal communities, such as Hampden or Bangor on the Penobscot?

The University of Maine project Sensing Storm Surge is a citizen science project in which volunteers observe and document storm surge events in Bass Harbor, the Penobscot River and the Bagaduce River. A storm surge is a rising of the sea as a result of atmospheric pressure changes and wind associated with a storm. It can cause extreme coastal and inland floods.

“As a result of global sea level rise, storm surges that occur today are eight inches higher than they would have been in 1900,” according to reports published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. “By 2100, storm surges will happen on top of an additional 1 to 8 feet of global sea level rise as compared to the year 2000.”

Stephen Rutter of Jonesboro: How can you possibly create a citizen science project related to rising sea level when the inhabitants of Maine coastal communities are completely polarized politically?

Citizen science, projects in which members of the public are involved with the collection and analysis of scientific data, has proven to be one effective way to bring communities together to understand and plan for sea level rise. Panelist Abby Roche, a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Maine, suggested finding one issue that the majority of people — across political ideologies — are all collectively concerned about, and create a project related to that issue. 

Wayne Peters of Roque Bluffs: Along the shore, how effective are rip rap efforts? 

Rip rap is a human-placed pile of rocks or other material, such as concrete blocks, used to armor shorelines against water-caused erosion. Shoreline armoring has both beneficial and detrimental effects, according to the National Ocean Service. It can prevent sandy beaches, wetlands and other intertidal areas from moving inland as the sea level rises, and it can eliminate habitat for marine life and limit beachfront for the public by restricting natural movement of sediments. 

“Rip rap has varying impacts depending on the shoreline type,” Dickson said. “In some areas it has minimal environmental impacts while in other places it can harm marshes, mud flats or neighboring shorelines.”

From Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor: Nova Scotia has a provincial fund to which towns can apply for climate impact projects. Is there nothing like that in Maine?

A number of different types of grants and loans for preparing for climate change in Maine communities are listed and described in the “Maine Prepares for Climate Change” 2019 update. The funding sources include Coastal Community Grants for municipalities and regional planning commissions to conduct vulnerability assessments, adaptation planning, community education and strategy development. Another resource, the Department of Marine Resources’s Shore and Harbor Grant program, provides competitive awards to coastal municipalities to conduct waterfront planning; vulnerability assessments are eligible.

The Island Institute also provides grant and loan support for small businesses and community infrastructure planning for island and coastal communities throughout Maine. And federal funding through the U.S. Economic Development Administration may be possible. In April, the EDA awarded a $3 million grant to the town of Damariscotta to make flood protection and infrastructure improvements to the downtown waterfront area.

The second webinar in the series, “BDN Climate Conversations: A Warming Gulf of Maine and our Marine Economy,” is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sept. 17, and is free and open to the public. Register here.

Reporting and commentary surrounding these climate conversations are published under a Creative Commons license, and can be freely republished with citation. This work is supported through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, which is helping the BDN reveal how local communities and Maine’s industries are coping with and adapting to climate change.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.