Storm surges and high tides pose a continuing threat to some beachfront homes in Rhode Island. Some owners have already moved their homes to higher locations. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
The evidence that sea level rise was affecting Rhode Island was not welcome news. As a result of sea level rise, both hurricanes and “nor’easters” will be more damaging, and the flooding effects will be felt farther inland. For instance, storm surge heights will increase as sea level rises resulting in many more properties being damaged or destroyed during a storm—including inland properties that have never before experienced flood damage.
The state’s coastal wetlands are also vulnerable to rapid changes in sea levels. Many of the salt marshes that border the state’s coastline will be inundated, causing significant loss of habitat for fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife, and making recreation areas and public spaces more vulnerable to flooding.
There are also concerns about species changes. In Rhode Island, there are projections that the lobster fishery could disappear over the next two decades, and there are already declines in winter flounder populations, which are not due entirely to overfishing, but the warming of the bay waters, Fugate says.
Erosion of sand and soil near this beachfront home exposed components of a septic system that were once buried underground. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Sea Grant.
Recognizing the need to address sea level rise and its impacts on Rhode Island’s coastal environment, in 2006 a Metro Bay Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) planning group began to look at the state’s vulnerability to coastal hazards and how they might be addressed. SAMPs are federally legislated strategic management tools that coastal managers use when the problems in a distinct area go beyond what can be addressed by existing local, state, and federal policies.
“There was a heightened sense that we need to look at sea level rise and see what the implications were for us,” Fugate says. “We knew that all this development would be susceptible to storm damage, and we wanted to get ahead of the curve on that before we were dealing with an after-the-fact issue.”
Rocks and boulders placed along the shore act as a revetment, or barricade, to protect shorefront property. Seawater overtopped this Rhode Island revetment during a storm, eroding the beach and damaging the fence. Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
At the same time the SAMP planning group was looking into the causes of the recurring waterfront park flooding and determining that the culprit was sea level rise, a state legislative committee was looking at potential hurricane impacts and the concerns of the insurance companies regarding building codes. “We don’t get hurricanes that often, but this was post-Katrina,” Sea Grant’s Rubinoff relates. “The whole state of Rhode Island is in the coastal zone, so we looked at this as a potential window for designing and implementing new policy.”
When it became clear that sea level rise resulting from climate change would worsen the impacts of future storms on coastal resources, the coastal council and Rhode Island Sea Grant worked with the legislature to amend the state building code to explicitly address sea level rise and climate change.
In December 2006, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law authorizing the council to “develop and adopt policies and regulations necessary to manage the coastal resources of the state and protect life and property from coastal hazards resulting from projected sea level rise and probable increased frequency and intensity of coastal storms due to climate change.” The council was also authorized to collaborate with the state building commissioner to gather information and adopt freeboard calculations, which is the elevation of structures above the base flood level.