Published in the Portland Phoenix
By the turn of the next century, most of the areas of Portland that were filled in during the 1800s to create more land downtown will be either underwater or regularly flooded during storms. We need to figure out what to do about that.
It doesn’t matter whether you think humans are or aren’t causing climate change. It doesn’t even matter if you are unsure whether climate change is happening at all. What counts is this: “We’re all going to get wet.”
That’s the frank assessment from Sam Merrill, who until last week was a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The same conclusion is clear from a wide range of reports over many years, including the latest update from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on Monday, which predicts sea levels will rise somewhere between 10 and 32 inches by 2100. And don’t forget about storm surges.
Merrill has worked for several years in partnership with private companies and federal research support, learning how best to help people adapt to the changing environment they find themselves in. That included a preliminary look at how much flooding Portland’s Back Cove might see in the future, which led to various meetings among Bayside residents, property owners, and businesspeople to discuss what might be done in response.
His company, Catalysis Adaptation Partners, puts that research into practice, and will present a report next month on what Portlanders can expect on the Commercial Street side of the peninsula in 2050 and 2100, to kickstart a Portland Society for Architecture community-wide conversation about what actions public and private entities might take to avert, avoid, or at least minimize disaster.
Merrill has left the university to devote himself to doing similar work worldwide, combining science with what might be called “civic psychotherapy,” supporting local communities as they develop solutions to the problems they face as a result of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.
He’s already helping planners at Boston’s Logan Airport and in Florida, and even in Minnesota, which is struggling with extreme weather events that wash out bridges along the shore of Lake Superior. The local governments in London and in Santos, Brazil (just outside Sao Paulo)*, have brought Catalysis in to help them develop plans to avoid getting so wet in the future.
Big changes, bigger questionsIn 2007, Merrill realized that the debate around climate change had been subsumed by two excesses: data and fear. We knew a whole lot about how bad things are likely to get, but had very little idea what would be the best approach to minimize the harm and damage.
The prospects are pretty terrifying. If all the ice on the planet melted, sea level would rise 216 feet, according to the US Geological Survey, as quoted in National Geographic magazine’s September issue. In Portland, that would leave about six feet of the very top of the Portland Observatory above the water.
That can’t happen overnight, or even, experts expect, terribly quickly — it might take thousands of years. The US Army Corps of Engineers suggests planners expect five feet of sea-level rise by 2100. That’s also the upper end of most official state and local estimates, which are usually based on the readings from the official tide gauge on the Maine State Pier. It’s enough to put Portland’s waterfront roughly back at Fore Street, which is where it was before Commercial Street was built on fill in the middle of the
Faced with that level of change, what should we do? Is a seawall the right answer? How big should it be, and where? What about building a new school, or moving a sewage-treatment plant? The dollar amounts for these things are always in the millions, if not the billions. Nobody wants to spend that much money and find out years from now it was too much — or too little, or the right amount but in the wrong place.
“We don’t need more data. We need more conversations,” Merrill says. (See sidebar, “Reports, And More Reports,” for a sampling of some of the data that’s been out there for years.)
Setting up the conversationIt’s important to have something concrete to talk about, though. That’s where Merrill’s method comes in. It is built on mathematical formulas developed by Paul Kirshen, a civil-engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire, coupled with three-dimensional imagery and modeling assembled by Hallowell-based Blue Marble Geographics.
The software is free to download and use, though it requires a certain level of familiarity with Geographic Information Systems data management, as well as access to property records and elevation data in certain specific formats. While hard to assemble on your own at home, it’s well within the range of most municipal planning-department staffers.
Relatively new data with extremely fine detail about elevations is key, says Blue Marble president Patrick Cunningham: “Five centimeters is the difference between (safety and) flooding the town.”
People can quickly identify the places where risk is highest (notice how fast you processed the information in the accompanying map of the Portland peninsula, below), and where it’s low or absent.
This clears people’s fear of the unknown, Merrill says, and turns it into civic engagement to address what are now clearly identifiable problems.
People can see what will happen if no action is taken in the face of sea-level rise and storm surge, as well as what will happen if certain specific actions are taken, allowing city leaders and average residents to compare a set of options for the future. Is a seawall better in one place, or should one area be allowed to flood to save another area that’s more important for some reason?
Merrill says it’s “really putting people in the driver’s seat and helping them evaluate their own risk tolerance.”
What he brings is not only the expertise to construct a strong set of models of various conditions, but also experience facilitating the conversations that must necessarily follow.
He finds, often, that people “are fed up with all the planning and never getting to implementation.” But the decision to pull the trigger is difficult.
“People don’t want scientists telling them what to do,” Merrill admits. “We’re not pushing anything. We don’t come in with any solutions or tell people what they should do. . . . They decide what they want to do.”
The community identifies how to measure value, whether in property assessments, or number of jobs, or natural resources, or any number of other attributes. They also pick what to prepare for — what range of sea-level rise, how big a storm surge — and possible options for protection — erecting a seawall, raising a building’s foundation, or even relocating a key building.
Then Catalysis runs the numbers and returns with maps and tables showing the likely outcomes: How much damage will be done in a single major storm under certain conditions, and the total damage done over the course of a century of sea-level rise and increasingly powerful storms. Most importantly, the report also includes pricing estimates for the protective actions, so people can make a cost-benefit analysis.
Dampening the Port City“The local tidal data has shown that sea level is rising,” Merrill notes. And people remember storms, like the Patriots’ Day storm in 2007 and the Mother’s Day storm the following year.
It’s useful to look at storm data beyond just predicting future storm damage: Three to four feet of storm surge now is the equivalent of what will be normal after that much sea-level rise in coming decades.
Some areas of Portland have already taken steps to adapt, says Bill Needelman, a senior planner for the city. Whole Foods is elevated above its surroundings, and the Intermed building on Marginal Way has a floor that’s above the street level.
“The city has been very forward-thinking in trying to solve drainage problems in Bayside,” observes JT Lockman, Catalysis’s vice-president of environmental planning. But still, during the highest local tides, sea water comes up the storm drain near Whole Foods and forms a salty puddle, even on sunny days, Lockman says.
Commercial Street, too, has seen some flooding at very high tides even without bad weather — and during some storms, many workers and residents recall seeing water spout out of runoff drains, flooding downtown streets and intersections.
What Lockman has found is that on the Maine coast, where the tidal range can be 10 or 11 feet, “if an event is short and it comes at low tide, it’s really no big deal.” But if it’s a storm that lasts for days, or arrives when tides are running above normal, or with high onshore winds, the toll can rise rapidly.
His preliminary results are just being reviewed for final tweaking before release to the public, but “our results are pretty much the same” as 2011 projections from Clean Air Cool Planet, which themselves resemble a 2009 UMass projection for the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.
“What we hope to do is help the architects really get the conversation started,” Lockman says. Some options include whether the city should require buildings to be elevated, or give grants to property owners to raise their buildings. There is, after all, a cost to adaptation — and a cost if we don’t adapt.
“It’s a fancy calculator,” says Merrill. The real key is humans: “Going in and running those meetings is not for the faint of heart.” (See sidebar, “The Kingston Example.”)
Even when the data used in the models comes from major past disasters, Lockman notes that people often see the maps as best-case scenarios: “A lot of people have looked at the predictions and said, ‘We actually think reality will be worse than this.’”
That turns quickly into the fact that nobody can afford to deal with the risks themselves. Some people want help from the government, while others think government spending is already too high.
This leads to a community discussion among different values — not just about the role of government, but about whether taking action to protect a significant historic site might damage a nearby wetland (or vice-versa), Merrill says.
And that’s where the Portland Society for Architecture comes in. Back in May 2011 the PSA held its first community-wide conversations about sea-level rise, including talking about Back Cove, says Executive Director Carole Merrill (who is no relation to Catalysis’s Sam).
Building on the high level of interest in that process, the PSA hired Catalysis to look at what will happen if the ocean rises two feet by 2050 and four feet by 2100, as well as what storms may come our way.
“We want to present the opportunities and challenges,” she says, which will start with Lockman’s presentation on November 7 at the city’s Ocean Gateway Terminal, followed by a talk by Susannah Drake, a New York City architect working on new designs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The following morning, SPACE Gallery will host a series of roundtable discussions to consider options for different areas of the waterfront. A few days before, on November 1, SPACE will open a two-month show of maps showing “progressive inundation by rising waters over time” in Portland.
As those conversations evolve, policymakers will be listening carefully, says the planning department’s Needelman. “It’s a difficult conversation, as Hurricane Sandy has shown down south, with real consequences. It warrants a broad community conversation before we establish the policies.”
The PSA discussion will “help establish common understandings of where the risk is, and the language of adaptation,” he says.
Looking statewideUnfortunately, Portland is doing this work mostly alone. Other towns around the state are doing similar work, but they’re not coordinating as much as they could be. This was predicted in a 2011 report from Clean Air Cool Planet: “Attention to climate preparedness in Maine has been present at the state level . . . However, there is concern that shifts in policy positions will negatively influence climate change adaptation efforts.”
Sure enough, the coastal adaptation plan the Maine Department of Environmental Protection submitted to the legislature in 2010 has been removed from the state’s website.
That report said the state “should develop a standardized set of criteria for assessing coastal communities and infrastructure for response and resilience to likely climate impacts, including a mechanism for evaluating vulnerability . . . (that) should be used to guide investments in infrastructure repair, protection, and land conservation and restoration.” Earlier this year, Republican Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bill to do exactly that, saying it wasn’t necessary.
But certain initiatives continue. Merrill is in fact working with the Maine Department of Transportation to evaluate options for bridge repairs and replacements. He’s examining alternative bridge designs — options with costs varying by millions of dollars — to see where those expenses will be most valuable. “It’s about fiscal efficiency,” Merrill says.
It’s because of that penny-pinching instinct that Merrill has high hopes for his approach, even if state leadership is missing. He’s not the only one who found demand for Catalysis-like services to be high: A Maine Sea Grant and UMaine Cooperative Extension report found in the summer of 2011 that “coastal property owners want to take action, but don’t know which strategies are most effective.” The options were laid out in an 85-page booklet comprehensively compiling the possible actions (including a wide range of protection options for beaches, sea bluffs, and coastal wetlands), with little direction on how to sort through the possibilities, or what to do if your neighbor had already started some sort of adaptation work next door.
And there are even more possibilities down the road, Merrill says, modeling other potential disasters, such as fire or drought — anything that can be simulated mathematically. As Merrill sardonically puts it, he’s working hard at “helping society figure out how to get out of harm’s way in the least bloody manner.”
*Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the name of the Brazilian town where Catalysis is working.
The Kingston exampleKingston, New York, is a city of about 25,000 people 90 miles north along the Hudson River from New York City. In 2011, the city was flooded from massive downpours in Hurricane Irene. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit, driving water levels up (the Hudson is tidal for another 60-plus miles upriver) and knocking out the local sewage-treatment plant.
Gregg Swanzey, the city’s director of economic development and strategic partnerships, says that led the mayor in December 2012 to create a large task force to help the town prepare for the uncertain future. That included hiring Catalysis Adaptation Partners to model the future and help with the community discussions. As Catalysis’s Sam Merrill points out, the cash-strapped federal and state governments can’t be counted on to do prevention, or even rescue. Towns and cities have to take this into their own hands.
“We have to have the hard conversations. It’s better than not if we’re all going to get wet,” Merrill says.
Most residents, Swanzey says, had one of two responses: “Don’t talk about it, or put a big wall up.” But seawalls aren’t often the real answer in waterfront communities. They might block water from entering commercial areas, but they also block people’s access to the water. Waterfront property owners, whether residential, commercial, or industrial, have large investments whose value is tied to water access.
During a series of meetings in the community, people were able to talk about ways they might prepare for more water, including seeking innovative building designs, such as those that can withstand flooding, or that float. Swanzey himself is in charge of seeking grants to help the city plan for moving the sewage plant, as well as other aspects of adaptation.
“People tend to look at what we have now and they want to protect what we have now,” Swanzey says, but notes it’s important to look at other alternatives that might be more workable solutions.
Reports, and more reportsThe data is out there, and has been for years. But the conversations about what needs to be done next are not happening. Here are just some of the Maine-related documents that have been prepared by government, academic, and advocacy organizations in the past four years alone.
People and Nature Adapting to a Changing Climate: Charting Maine’s Course (Part 1, Part 2 ) | Maine Department of Environmental Protection | February 2010