Editorial: Rising seas

At Mount Desert Island homes and businesses last week, folks were busy buttoning up before Hurricane Dorian arrived. Boats and floats were hauled, ships altered course and Acadia National Park officials closed some areas.

While the storm wreaked havoc in the Bahamas and knocked out power in Atlantic Canada, here in Downeast Maine it was one of those storms that never really arrived. The flurry of preparation, though, served as a reminder that we do well to pay attention to what the ocean is going to do. It’s in our natures and culture to be prepared and mitigate risk.

As sea level rise continues and storm damage becomes more frequent and more severe, how might we put those instincts to good use for longer-range planning?

Tide-gauge records in Portland showed a sea-level rise of 0.07 inches per year between 1912 and 2008. Mean sea level in Bar Harbor was up 0.12 inches per year between 1992 and 2014, according to NOAA. The University of Maine and Maine SeaGrant attribute the rise to three factors: volumetric increase of the ocean as glaciers and land-based ice sheets melt, thermal expansion as the atmosphere and ocean warm and slight regional sinking of the land along the coast.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Sand Dune Rules anticipate a two-foot rise in sea level by the year 2100. They prohibit the construction of new, “hard” structures such as seawalls and bulkheads to prevent erosion. Many of these already exist, 152 miles’ worth, or 5 percent of the coast. “Today, managers recommend ‘soft’ engineering structures that protect shorefront property without worsening erosion elsewhere,” a UMaine fact sheet says.

MDI has relatively few low-lying areas at immediate risk of flooding from the sea, but important areas of Tremont and West Tremont are vulnerable. Maps show the Cranberry Isles, especially Great Cranberry, losing a lot of land in the event of a 6-meter sea level rise from current levels.

For higher ground, storms and related flooding and erosion have been a problem for a long time; they’re getting worse. Twice in 2018, storms washed enough large rocks onto Seawall Road in Acadia National Park that the road needed to be closed.

Ten years ago, when hundreds of people lined the shore and Ocean Drive in Acadia to watch the waves from Hurricane Bill, three people were swept into the ocean by waves and a 7-year-old girl was killed. Many more were seriously injured.

After that tragic event, then-Superintendent Sheridan Steele said the coordinated response had made all the difference. “It seemed that everyone was well-trained and ready for this emergency,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Islander. “Teamwork was outstanding and community resources were prepared and everyone was eager to help.”

Facing a dangerous tide of a whole other magnitude, the island community will need to take the same approach. Study is already underway in low-lying Stonington for how to protect infrastructure, but we need not wait until flooding becomes commonplace to begin planning for how to prepare and adapt.

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