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Boston’s rising seas: Tide turns in fight to mitigate effects of climate change

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In 1985, ‘not one was aware’

Harshil Shah/Flickr

Climate change and its cause may be contentious elsewhere, but, in Boston, everyone agrees: Climate change is occurring, greenhouse gases are its cause, and Boston is especially vulnerable because the Atlantic Ocean laps at our door.

So city leaders have mounted a full court press to deal with its consequences.

“Climate change is real,” said Austin Blackmon, Boston’s chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space. “We’re preparing for its impacts, which will depend on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted globally.”

The biggest concern is sea-level rise. It could be two and a half feet by 2100 if world emissions are reduced significantly now, Blackmon estimated. Worst case? The sea level could rise more than 10 feet.

Potential sea-level rise by 2050
Green Ribbon Commission
Potential sea-level rise by 2100
Green Ribbon Commission

Blackmon’s office is ground zero for climate change action in Boston, but almost every local business, institution, and civic heavy hitter is involved in the effort.

The Barr Foundation provided funding for the city’s December 2016 report, “Climate Ready Boston,” which assessed the problems and provided a framework for solutions.

Amos Hostetter, Barr Foundation trustee, serves on the Green Ribbon Commission, which the city formed in 2010 to support its climate change efforts. It was an outgrowth of a commission that the late Mayor Tom Menino formed in 2007.

That organization comprises such prominent persons as John Fish of Suffolk Construction; Robert Brown, Boston University’s president; Marcy Reed of National Grid; David Torchiana, CEO of Partners HealthCare; and Kathy Abbott, who heads Boston Harbor Now, an advocacy group. UMass Boston conducts much of the research.

Boston is already experiencing climate change effects. Its average temperature rose 2 degrees between 1895 and 2011. Since the late 1800s, the sea has risen about a foot, said Julie Wormser, vice president for policy and planning at Boston Harbor Now.

Floating docks are already higher than the surrounding infrastructure and the city has experienced more frequent flooding, she said.

Salt water is corrosive and constant flooding takes a toll. “There are $80 billion worth of assets in FEMA’s flood plain,” Blackmon, the city’s chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space, said. “On an annual basis, we could have $1.4 billion worth of asset damage.”

City officials, based on the recommendations of “Climate Ready Boston,” will make zoning and code changes for new buildings.

Adapting old buildings is difficult, so wetlands, berms, or barriers may be employed to deal with the water. The city’s infrastructure coordinating committee considers how water, sewers, and tunnels can be protected.

Recently the city issued a request for proposals for coastal resiliency planning for the South Boston waterfront, which is filled land.

“There’s not a lot of high ground there,” Blackmon said.

In 2013, the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown became the first building to prepare for rising sea levels with a raised elevation, operable windows, and roof-top electrical services. Subsequent developers don’t need to be convinced to protect their buildings.

“By the time we get in the ground, we hope to be the model for sea-level rise and sustainability,” said Rob Caridad, the Chiofaro Co.’s manager for the Harbor Garage project, which lies next to Boston Harbor.

If it goes forward, the building will be resilient in ways similar to Spaulding Rehab. “Our principle is to be operational within 24 hours [of a catastrophe] with minimal damage,” Caridad said.

But his concern goes beyond the building itself—a lesson learned from Hurricane Sandy in New York City in 2012. “Even buildings that were well-positioned to recover quickly couldn’t because the subways and utility lines were flooded,” Caridad said.

The city’s Blackmon is tackling the here and now. Wormser of Boston Harbor Now describes the future. “If the sea level rises seven and a half feet, 30 percent of the city will be underwater,” she observed.

She said UMass Boston is studying the feasibility of barriers across the harbor and a raised harbor walk to keep the tides out, or letting the water in under controlled circumstances and elevating the city. All solutions are expensive and will take negotiation.

Insurers have come to no consensus about how to deal with rising sea levels, said the Insurance Information Institute’s Michael Barry. Blackmon said insurers sometimes won’t insure certain locations at any price.

Boston cannot do much about how other places deal with climate change, but Blackmon said the city can reduce the greenhouse gases that Boston’s buildings and vehicles emit. If nothing changes, Boston’s summers will be like those in Birmingham, Ala., by 2100, he said.

Such warnings are familiar now. That wasn’t the case until fairly recently. And, while public and private entities are moving swiftly to combat rising sea levels, it has taken a long time to see action.

In 1985, the Boston Globe published a special section on the Boston Harbor. One article reported that “within a century, waterfront communities could be contending with sea levels three to five feet higher.”

The article went on to say the “Environmental Protection Agency is undertaking a program to educate coastal communities and encourage them to consider this possibility in their planning.”

When the reporter contacted local officials about the matter, “Not one,” she wrote, “was aware of the sea-level issue.”

Karen Cord Taylor was the founding editor and publisher of the Beacon Hill Times in 1995, and is the author of Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians and Legendary Locals of Beacon Hill.