Expert: Rapidly rising sea levels could have dramatic effect on RI, MA coastline

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The ocean is a major resource for Rhode Island and Massachusetts. They’re not called the Ocean State and the Bay State for nothing. So sea level rise is a vitally important issue for our area and according to local researchers, our coastline will change dramatically in the coming decades.

“Sea level rise is accelerating,” said Pamela Rubinoff of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and Rhode Island Sea Grant. Rubinoff says sea level rise was first tracked in Rhode Island in 1930. Since then, the water has been steadily rising.

“Around nine inches here in Rhode Island,” said Rubinoff, “and interestingly enough, since the 1990’s, we’ve seen around three of those inches.”

That means the water is rising faster as time goes on, and experts say an accelerating level of sea rise will soon turn inches into feet.

“We’re seeing some of our ice sheets melting,” Rubinoff said. “We’re seeing the water expanding. And these two, in addition to some of the currents changing, are showing itself on the shore as rising seas.”

The issue of rising water isn’t a new one. Ocean levels were already expected to rise about seven feet by the year 2100. But a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has upped that total significantly. The new projection for sea level rise is now nine to eleven feet. The impacts on Rhode Island could be devastating, and we’d start to see them sooner rather than later.

“By 2050, 13 square miles [would be] permanently under water,” said Rubinoff.

Coastal flooding maps from URI, RI Sea Grant, and the Coastal Resources Center show just how much sea level rise could change the shape of our coastline. The maps top out at seven feet of sea level rise. Researchers tell us they’re working to update them with the new, higher projections of nine to eleven feet. But even at seven feet, the results are dramatic. At that level, huge chunks of the Oakland Beach area of Warwick would be underwater.

The maps show most of Barrington Beach would disappear with a seven foot sea level rise, with waters pushing nearly to the doors of Rhode Island Country Club.

In downtown Providence, the hurricane barrier would have to be permanently closed with seven feet of sea level rise. Otherwise, the ocean would push all the way to City Hall.

Middle Bridge Road in Narragansett would also change dramatically. Many of the houses by the water would be underwater with a seven foot sea level rise. And remember, the new estimates are now even higher.

So what’s driving this accelerated level of rising water?

“What the research is showing, and what the overwhelming majority of scientists are saying, is that there is a direct correlation between increased CO2 coming from our cars, coming from our power plants, and increased temperatures,” explained Rubinoff, adding that those increased temperatures has led to arctic ice sheets melting.

Rubinoff also said we’re already seeing some of the impacts of sea level rise in Rhode Island. Flooding on extremely high tides is becoming more frequent, and that flooding is only made worse during storms.

NOAA, along with Rhode Island Sea Grant have developed the MyCoast app, which allows users to submit flooding images and scientists to track the impact of rising seas.

“Right now, many communities are incorporating sea level rise and storm surge in their comprehensive plans,” said Rubinoff.

She said people have been raising their homes for a while, but they may have to raise them even higher. Coastal roads will likely need to be elevated. People are now putting their furnaces, air conditioning units and hot water heaters on the second floor to avoid flood waters. But that won’t put a stop to the rising seas.

For those looking to take a proactive approach to the issue, Rubinoff suggests, “You could take action at your very local level in terms of dealing with greenhouse gases. You could work to try to support policies within the state.”