Sea Level Rise on Block Island
The Town of New Shoreham has identified sea level rise as an issue that requires careful planning and public involvement. A Sea Level Rise (SLR) Committee was created with the mission “to understand the potential local impacts posed by sea level rise, assess the community’s vulnerabilities, engage citizens, and assist the town to assess, recommend, and implement mitigation projects or other priority actions that will improve Block Island’s coastal resiliency.”
So, how does a small coastal town respond?
On Block Island, areas vulnerable to sea level rise include Crescent Beach, Corn Neck Road, Bridgegate Square, Ocean and Beach Avenues, Spring Street, the ferry docks (Block Island and Galilee), the Great Salt Pond, dunes, bluffs, and several marshes. Low-lying areas contain critical island infrastructure (power, water, and sewage lines), businesses (gas station, grocery, bars, restaurants, marinas, stores), and, if flooded, can cut-off access to fire/rescue services and the power company (Figure 1).
Sea level rise driven by changes in the global climate is a risk to the coastal United States today and well into the future. Sea levels will continue to rise due to the ocean’s response to atmospheric warming that has already occurred, even if no further atmospheric warming were to take place. Rising sea levels and land subsidence combine with other coastal inundation factors, such as storm surge, wave effects, rising coastal water tables, river flows, and rainfall, which are also undergoing climate-related changes. The net result will be an increase in the exposure and vulnerability of critical coastal infrastructure related to transportation, water, sewage, energy, trade, military readiness, and coastal ecosystems.
The projections of relative sea level rise along the contiguous U.S. coastline are about 2 to 7.2 feet in 2100 and 2.6 to12.8 feet in 2150 (relative to sea level in 2000); the ranges are driven by uncertainty in future emissions pathways and the response of underlying physical processes. Locally, and in this century, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s policy is to adopt and use the sea level change scenarios published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2012, and the sea level rise change curves for Newport and Providence as provided in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ sea level rise calculator. As of 2015, the range in local sea level rise was projected by NOAA to be approximately 1.0 foot in 2035, 2.0 feet in 2050, and 7.0 feet in 2100. These local projections may increase, as estimates are updated by a 2022 NOAA Report.
The first meeting of the SLR Committee was held in November, 2021. Priorities were established using a standard process of brainstorming and consensus-building, which is ongoing. The SLR Committee priority list is by no means complete. It will be used for public outreach and as a framework for the Town to request funds.
The Committee’s “Preliminary Interim Priorities” in no particular order are: Corn Neck Road North of Beach Ave (including the dunes), Corn Neck Road South of Beach Ave, Bridgegate Square, Beach Ave, Ocean Ave, and marsh migration.
The full list is longer; for example, Sandy Point and the Mohegan Bluffs are a concern. Nothing fell “off” the list, however, the above geographic areas/features were given highest priority, by consensus. The Committee does not intend to imply that any of the listed locations has a priority over the other, especially since most are interrelated. Alternatively, we want to identify “champions” for each priority to watch for funding opportunities and work with the town on writing proposals and following through on projects.
Central to accomplishing the SLR Committee’s mission is public communication. The Committee is committed to productive community collaboration, knowing effective communication among our population is the way to move forward, together. Developing the best strategies for public engagement to promote understanding, education, and clarity is a challenge; however, the SLR Committee aims to forge ahead on the urgent and specific issue with which the Committee has been tasked and is looking forward to engaging the Block Island community with each step we take.
Dr. Michael Oppenheimer (Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University) will attend the August 2 SLR Committee meeting where we hope to ask him if the Committee is on the right track. Join us!
The Block Island SLR Committee meets at Town Hall on the first Tuesday of each month at 3 p.m. All are welcome to attend and public comments and input are encouraged. The SLR Committee is subject to open meeting laws; agendas are posted at https://opengov.sos.ri.gov/openmeetings (search “New Shoreham Sea Level Rise Committee” in the Public
Bodies box). Committee members were selected by the Town Council and include: Mary Anderson, Socha Cohen, Clair Comings – Vice-Chair, George Davis, Kim Gaffett, Judith Gray – Chair, Nigel Grindley, Tadhg O’Neill, and Sven Risom, as well as Alison Ring – Town Planner, and the Clerk’s Office. A student representative has graduated and the Committee hopes to recruit a replacement from the island school.