The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography held a coastal resiliency symposium on Tuesday to discuss the dangers climate change could have on coastal communities.
Four coastal experts made up the panel of speakers. Retired Navy Rear Admiral Jonathan W. White was the keynote speaker. United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and United States Representative James Langevin also spoke at the event.
The symposium was arranged by Langevin, and was held in order to discuss the impact climate change has on both military installations and civilian structures along the coastline. Langevin said he organized the symposium because of his concerns regarding climate change.
“There is extraordinary work that is going on here at the University of Rhode Island, in terms of data collection and presentation of the consequences from the threats of climate change,” Langevin said. “I worked to make sure we were highlighting this work and using it to further educate the public of the challenges.”
Langevin, Whitehouse and White warned that a failure to act could result in numerous impacts on the environment and the economy. Langevin and White said that climate change is a national security risk.
“Our goal is to have a military that is ready, not just to actually protect our coast, but to really protect our national security around the world,” White said. “Our ability to do that if we’re battling the impacts on the infrastructure and our time to train and everything else is huge.”
John King, a URI professor of geological oceanography, was the first panelist to speak. King discussed climate model predictions and the accuracy of such predictions.
According to King, temperature models have been relatively accurate, but sea rise prediction models have seen significant underestimations. He told the audience that if prediction models are correct, Quonset Point in North Kingstown could see an 11-foot rise in sea levels by 2100. This would inundate several important structures on the peninsula.
“If we come out of here today with just a bunch of good intentions, we’re on the road to Hell,” King told the audience. “If we come out of here today with a commitment to transformative change, to actually get greenhouses gases down, then we may end up in a much better place.”
Austin Becker, a URI associate professor of coastal planning, policy and design told the audience there are three major problems coastal communities face due to climate change. Becker listed twice as many major hurricanes occurring by the end of the century compared to now, sea level rise and increases in the frequency in which areas see high amounts of precipitation as the three major threats.
“If we take these three drivers and bundle them together as scientists have done in other studies, we find that what is today a ‘one in a 100 year’ storm event, or the annual one percent probability event, becomes something like the ‘one in three year’ event by the end of the century,” Becker said in his speech.
Christopher D.P. Baxter, a URI professor of ocean, civil and environmental engineering, said models show the dangers storm surge could have on roads and homes. He told the audience that at Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown, flooding would completely inundate the area. He said examining these possibilities and preparing for them, such as restoring dunes, can help make the area more resilient to floods.
Baxter also explained the impact sea level rise can have away from the immediate coastline.
“With about a three-meter sea level rise, parts of downtown Providence will be flooded twice daily,” Baxter told the audience. “The hurricane barrier isn’t going to do anything about that because we can’t close the barrier twice a day.”
Pamela Rubinoff, a coastal management and climate extension specialist, told the audience ‘Prep-RI’ is an online tool that provides informative modules about climate change to decision-makers and citizens. Rubinoff recently demonstrated these modules to the Charlestown planning board.
“We need to take a variety of these tools to businesses because they are critically important to our vibrant community,” Rubinoff told the audience. “Going out to neighborhoods, and doing some walks and talks, we’re trying to engage neighborhoods to be able to use these tools and move ahead with how they can start to talk and have conversations on the neighborhood level of what they can do to make themselves more resilient.”
Whitehouse said climate change is a threat to Rhode Island’s coastline and that protecting the coast is crucial. Whitehouse noted that as a small state, Rhode Island can not afford to lose a significant amount of land to rising sea levels.
“I think it’s also really important to get the word out, that notwithstanding the nonsense that comes out of the fossil fuel industry and their front groups, this is deadly real and deadly serious,” Whitehouse said. “It’s going to be a huge issue for our kids and grandkids unless we get ahead of it.”
Peter J. Snyder, the URI vice president for research and economic development, said URI is committed to supporting the sciences that focus on climate change. He said URI has both the talent and resources to find solutions to the issues discussed at the symposium.