Sen. Whitehouse Touts Rhode Island’s Resiliency from Senate Floor

Homes along East Matunuck Beach have little protection against storm surge and erosion | Photo Meredith Haas

Earlier this month, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse presented to his peers his 151st speech on climate change. He addressed the various challenges that particularly face coastal areas, from sea level rise and storm surge to increasing surface temperatures and ocean acidification.

“The effects of climate change will hit home first, and hardest, along our coasts,” said Whitehouse, referencing the impacts already being felt in Rhode Island, and describing what is being done to build resilient communities.

“Under the leadership of the Grover Fugate, at the Coastal Resources Management Council, in cooperation with the leading experts at the University Rhode Island, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and at the Rhode Island Geological Survey, we are well aware of what climate change, sea level rise, and storm surge mean for our coastal communities,” he said.


Senator Sheldon Whitehouse discusses climate change on the Senate floor.

“Narragansett Bay has already seen a nearly 4˚F increase in winter water temperatures since the 1960s,” Whitehouse said, adding that since the 1930s, sea level has risen 10 inches and exacerbates the damage inflicted by storm surge. Whitehouse used such figures, as well as descriptions of community efforts to address these issues, to urge members of the Senate to support increased investment in coastal resiliency around the country.

STORMTOOLS

Whitehouse cited Stormtools, a free digital tool for property owners and coastal planners that shows the impacts of various sea level rise and storm surge scenarios, as one such investment.

“Users can apply Google Earth to see what damages from sea level rise and storm surge will look like on a building-by-building basis,” he said. “The city of Warwick is already using these maps for its future planning and its emergency planning.”

Stormtools is the culmination of years of data collecting on storm surges, tidal heights, and sea level. This was part of a $20 million study authorized by Congress to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to find ways to reduce risks to vulnerable coastal communities and promote resiliency in consideration of future sea level rise and climate change scenarios. As a result, Stormtools is one of the first high-resolution visualization tools accessible to all local municipalities, regulators, and planning organizations in Rhode Island to help make community-based decisions with regard to sea level rise and storm events.

“In Rhode Island, the coastal economy accounts for $55 billion of the state’s GDP and employed over 400,000 people in 2014. This productivity is at risk if those communities, and their businesses, cannot protect themselves from the consequences of our changing environment.”

“Each map is designed to show different sea level rise scenarios based on historical storm data,” said Chris Damon, GIS expert at the University of Rhode Island Environmental Data Center, at a Rhode Island Shoreline Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) meeting earlier last year (Read more), explaining how to navigate these maps to see what local infrastructure and private homes are vulnerable to projections of 1-foot, 3-feet, and 5-feet of sea level rise, as well as the compounded impact of storm surges at these levels.

“We wanted to create maps that had municipal applications,” added Teresa Crean, extension specialist for Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center, during the same Beach SAMP meeting, explaining the implications of sea level rise and storms on  evacuation routes and emergency services. “We wanted to know which areas would be cut off from flooding, and which facilities would be compromised and where we could place them that would be sufficient to continue services during a storm event.”

Refinements of Stormtools are ongoing to improve its overall functions, with the application of the Coastal Environmental Risk Index (CERI) that analyzes the damage to buildings and their contents that would result from flooding (including wave action) and sea level rise. This index will enhance the resolution of the maps in both the topography of coastal areas and of individual structures showing flooding extent, depth, and potential debris.

“The Coastal Environmental Risk Index will add even more specificity to the models working in Stormtools,” said Whitehouse, remarking on the how such technological advancements will help coastal communities. “According to the most recent report from the National Ocean Economics Program, more than 134 million people live in U.S. coastal zone counties in 2014. These counties accounted for nearly half of the total U.S. GDP and more than 40$ of total US employment.In RI, the coastal economy accounts for $55 billion of the state’s GDP and employ over 400,000 people in 2014. This productivity is at risk if those communities, and their businesses, cannot protect themselves from the consequences of our changing environment,” said Whitehouse.

“According to the most recent report from the National Ocean Economics Program, more than 134 million people live in U.S. coastal zone counties in 2014. These counties accounted for nearly half of the total U.S. GDP and more than 40 percent of total US employment,” he said. “In Rhode Island, the coastal economy accounts for $55 billion of the state’s GDP and employed over 400,000 people in 2014. This productivity is at risk if those communities, and their businesses, cannot protect themselves from the consequences of our changing environment.”

Stormtools was created as a part of the Rhode Island Beach Special Area Management Plan and is available to use online: http://www.beachsamp.org/stormtools/

More information on Rhode Island Beach SAMP is available here: http://www.beachsamp.org

 

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Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications