Falmouth Scientist Urges Towns To Plan Now For Sea Level Rise

Damage on Surf Drive near the intersection with the Shining Sea Bikeway.SAM HOUGHTON/ENTERPRISE - Damage on Surf Drive near the intersection with the Shining Sea Bikeway.

The message from E. Robert Thieler is that planning ahead and staying informed about sea level rise will be beneficial to the town as seas are expected to rise three feet in the next 100 years and federal money to mitigate its effect will be minimal.

Dr. Thieler is a US Geological Survey researcher and Falmouth resident. He also served as chairman of the Falmouth Coastal Resources Working Group, tasked by Falmouth selectmen in 2000 to study Falmouth’s coast. He spoke recently  to approximately 100 people at the Woods Hole Research Center about sea level rise and its effect on the world, the region and Falmouth.

“These are tough questions and thinking about them hard, sooner rather than later, will be very helpful.” Dr. Thieler said. “We can expect that money to mitigate and adapt to sea level will go to coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Diego. Falmouth just won’t get on anyone’s radar.”

Surf Drive, in particular, is vulnerable to the ocean as well as important to the town. “What we will do when it gets hit?” Dr. Thieler asked. “Will we put it right back, or decide not to rebuild it... it would be nice to have a plan,” he said.

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If the road is to be moved, there are policies that need to be addressed, land ownership issues, and conservation commission issues involved with moving a road, Dr. Thieler said. The town does not have a plan now, he said.

He said that such incidents from sea level changes or hurricanes could be an opportunity to reconstruct coastal infrastructure. “We need to provide a response protocol so that when something does happen, we don’t put it back the same way,” he said. It could be an “unfortunate but important opportunity” to create policy to adapt infrastructure to sea level rise, he said.

Nationally, he said that 68 percent of the United States coast is currently eroding while much of the country is moving to the coast to live. He said there is an estimated $9 trillion in infrastructure in the country.

There are projections of a sea level rise of up to six feet in 100 years, he said, although his projections are about three feet by 2100. The discrepancies are due to differing predictions on the use of fossil fuels, he said.

Little is known about how some landscapes will adapt to sea level rise, he said. About 50 percent of the country’s coast consists of barrier islands. He said they will no longer be a stable land form, which will be difficult to manage.

He used Charleston, South Carolina, as an example, saying that that seven-foot tides are predicted there now twice a year. With sea level rise, these high tide floods could become everyday occurrences. People will become less willing to cope with the high tides and will leave the area, he said.

One way to mitigate damage from sea level increases is to identify what is important to the town, he said. Falmouth has a long history of armoring the coast to protect certain property. He said it was done when there was a minimal understanding of coastal dynamics. Armoring Nobska and Falmouth Heights with rock walls, he said, has led to a loss of sand elsewhere. He said that sand is a limited resource and the town should be cognizant of its use. 

Robert M. Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, introduced Dr. Thieler and said his talk was the first in a lecture series that will focus on local issues.

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