STORMTOOLS Sets Up RI Coast for Resiliency

Rhode Island communities are stepping up to a national challenge in planning for sea level and storms at a local level.

In his State of the Union address on January 20, President Barack Obama said that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Rhode Island has already felt the brunt of climate change impacts, including sea level rise, flooding, erosion, and extreme weather events that have damaged coastal habitats and infrastructure, which is why the state is taking quick action to address these issues statewide.

STORMTOOLS, a web-based program to show coastal planners the impacts of various sea level rise and storm surge scenarios, was recently launched at the Rhode Island Shoreline Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) meeting on January 20, following a workshop provided to local municipal staff on how to use these tools for their respective communities.

“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.”

“Rhode Island is really stepping out on the issue of community resilience,” said Curt Spalding, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England region, who is making visits to the Ocean State to evaluate at-risk areas and understand what methods the state is using to address these issues. “Rhode Island is one of the most vulnerable states in New England to the effects of climate change, but also has one of the strongest coastal management programs in the nation.”

STORMTOOLS is the culmination of years of data collecting on storm surges, tidal heights and sea level that further the objectives of a $20M 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 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.

“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, explaining how to navigate these maps to see what local infrastructure and even 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.

STORMTOOLS map shows flood zones or a 100-Year Storm Event Plus Sea Level Rise

STORMTOOLS map shows flood zones or a 100-Year Storm Event Plus Sea Level Rise

“We wanted to create maps that had municipal applications,” said Teresa Crean, extension  specialist for Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center, 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.”

STORMTOOLS is a unique program not only for its accessibility but because it incorporates both sea level rise with return periods – the likelihood of a storm event happening again – to show community planners how they correlate.

“At five feet of sea level rise, the 100-year storm now becomes an annual event,” said Malcolm Spaulding, URI professor emeritus of ocean engineering, noting these maps are conservative to take into account uncertainties regarding climate change projections.

Users can click a button to add data, such as sewer lines, to tailor maps for a particular use, but these maps have limitations.

“They don’t consider hydraulic connectivity between coastal floodplains and inland areas, or river and coastal flooding interaction,” said Spaulding, explaining that areas shaded green on the maps indicate areas assumed to be impacted. “We know it’s a problem and we’re working on it.”

“We’re working to refine the tools and make [them] relevant to decision-makers,” said Crean.

 

– Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Research Communications Specialist

The next Beach SAMP meeting will be in early March and will host guest speakers who specialize in adaptive infrastructure. Please visit beachsamp.org for more information.