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Rising sea levels: What is in store for New England?

Hayley Wheeler




Nestled in the northeastern corner of the United States, New England is renowned for its captivating beauty, charming coastal towns, and picturesque shorelines. Our region’s coastal landscapes have long enchanted residents and tourists alike, serving as a seasonal haven for recreation, commerce, and cultural heritage. However, there lies a growing concern: The looming danger of rising sea levels, driven by global warming, presenting a grave threat to the New England states and their cherished coastlines.

According to NASA and the World Economic Forum, as temperatures continue to climb, polar ice caps melt at an accelerating rate mixed with the combination of heat being released from the ocean, contributing to the gradual inundation of coastal areas. New England, with its extensive coastline, is particularly vulnerable to this, facing heightened risks of flooding, erosion, and infrastructure damage. One research article published at the American Meteorological Society by Jianjun Yin at the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona goes into depth on the acceleration of sea level rise along the US East Coast from 2010-2022, further explaining that major hurricanes and their sister storm surges have caused “significant to catastrophic” coastal inundation and socioeconomic damage, which was all due to the warming of ocean currents along the coast + multidecadal epochs (series of long-duration changes, units of geological time) of enhanced sea level variability at the East Coast the gauge records. Another geophysical research letter published by Advancing Earth and Space Sciences goes into detail on the uncertainty in future regional sea level rise, quoting that “A warmer and fresher ocean or a melt-back of continental ice will increase seawater volume, leading to a rise in sea level.” On a regional scale, sea levels are influenced by ocean currents driven by wind and buoyancy, which plays a role in redistributing heat and salt within the ocean.

Presently, communities along the New England coast, especially in states not as protected by Long Island Sound’s land barrier such as Massachusetts and Maine, are already witnessing the effects of sea levels rise through more frequent and severe storms, coastal erosion, and saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources. Sea walls and other coastal defenses are being built in not just the United States, but also in countries such as Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But these defenses in and of themselves can also cause erosional issues and habitat destruction - if they are built on coastal wetlands, which are native to New England, this can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - therefore exacerbating climate change, stated by Victoria Masterson, Senior Writer for the World Economic Forum. Areas within the Sound are also witnessing these effects, especially throughout coastal towns in Rhode Island and Connecticut that attract tourists throughout the summer that have limited access due to destruction, erosion, and ocean currents. Since Long Island Sound acts as a tidal estuary it can decrease wave action and tide effects, but recently due to climate change impacts, this area is no longer a safe space for harbors and communities.

So, when is the tipping point? Published by both Yankee & Gale agencies, Ian Aldrich writes on the impacts to Martha’s Vineyard and nearby New England regions from the past decade of powerful storms and the challenges we will face if we do not act soon; “More than 250,000 Maine residents lost power, wind gusts topping 147 mph scoured New Hampshire's Mount Washington, and rising sea levels brought coastal towns like Gloucester, Massachusetts, to a grinding halt.” If these trends go unaddressed they will only become more dangerous as the years progress; foretelling a progressively hazardous future for the Northeast region of the United States, with significant economic, environmental, and social consequences.

Urgent action is imperative to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels and safeguard the resilience and beauty of New England’s coastal communities and beaches for generations to come


Citations

1. Aldrich, I. (2024, January-February). TIPPING POINT: Amid extreme weather and an encroaching sea, Martha's Vineyard must answer a critical question: Will the fabled island change, or be changed by, its climate future? Yankee, 88(1), 92+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A779458365/AONE?u=anon~91dc23eb&sid=googleScholar&xid=4e6dae41

2. Hu, A., and C. Deser (2013), Uncertainty in future regional sea level rise due to internal climate variability, Geophys. Res. Lett., 40, 2768–2772, https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/grl.50531

3. Masterson, V., & Hall, S. (2022, September 29). Sea level rise: Everything you need to know. World Economic Forum; Centre for Nature and Climate. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/09/rising-sea-levels-global-threat/

4. NASA Global Climate Change. (2023). Vital Signs | Ocean Warming. Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet; NASA. https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/ocean-warming/

5. Yin, J. (2023). Rapid Decadal Acceleration of Sea Level Rise along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts during 2010-2022 and Its Impact on Hurricane-Induced Storm Surge. Journal of Climate, 36(13), 1–38. https://doi.org/10.1175/jcli-d-22-0670.1




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