Panel: Maine’s rising seas prompt local adaptation challenges, but solutions are possible

The rise in sea levels, caused by the expansion of warming waters and melting ice sheets, has accelerated since the 1990s. Maine’s Climate Council says coastal communities should plan for 1.5 feet of rise by 2050.
The Unstoppable Ocean panel, consisting of one man and three women, speaking during the event.
Event panelists Peter Slovinsky, Alison McKellar, Kate Cough and Hannah Baranes. Not shown is Alex MacLean. Photo by Caitlin Andrews.

As Mainers witness the increasing climate change-driven effects of rising seas, experts at an event in Portland Wednesday night said coastal communities need to act more quickly to adapt. 

About 50 people came to the panel discussion at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, co-hosted by The Maine Monitor, Colby College’s Buck Lab, and GMRI in tandem with the Monitor’s recent project “The Unstoppable Ocean: 10 stories from the edge of Maine.” 

“This issue is already here today, and it’s just going to continue to get worse,” said Peter Slovinsky, who studies sea level rise and coastal erosion as a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey. “So the time to act and start to respond is now.”

The rise in sea levels, caused by the expansion of warming waters and melting ice sheets, has accelerated since the 1990s, federal data shows. Maine’s Climate Council says coastal communities should plan for 1.5 feet of rise by 2050 — which would supplant close to half of the state’s dry beaches and drive a sharp increase in nuisance flooding — and 4 feet by 2100. 

GMRI researcher Hannah Baranes, who joined Wednesday’s panel, said scientists are growing more certain about the changes places like Maine can expect in the coming decades. Tipping points related to potential ice sheet collapse are still a major area of uncertainty — but it’s slowly becoming clearer what humans may or may not achieve when it comes to reducing emissions.

Camden Select Board vice chair Alison McKellar sees the effects of these emissions, and the rising seas they cause, firsthand. McKellar has worked to document the worsening storm surges and higher tides that are increasingly inundating Camden Harbor’s seawall and nearby waterfront. 

She said this anecdotal, visual evidence has helped encourage a new consensus in her town. 

“I haven’t been hearing, recently, like, ‘Oh, this never happens in Camden, the sea wall doesn’t overtop,'” McKellar told Wednesday’s audience. “What we’re arguing about now is more, how should we adapt to it?” 

According to Slovinsky, there are several ways communities can tackle the problem. They can work to avoid the rising waters; do nothing and let them in; accommodate and adapt to increased sea levels; protect against the impacts of the change; or retreat altogether. 

“We in Maine are going to have to respond in some areas by retreating,” Slovinsky said. “Things are going to flood too many times, and probably economics is going to drive it, but retreat is something that has to be considered.” 

But there are myriad challenges to planning these responses and avoiding unmitigated impacts from flooding, saltwater intrusion and more, panelists said. Kate Cough, the Monitor reporter who wrote the Unstoppable Ocean series, said that she found that smaller towns often need help accessing planning resources to make informed decisions. 

The patchwork of visual and anecdotal evidence available to help people grasp the urgency of the issue is another problem. One GMRI program, which collects citizen observations of coastal flooding in Maine, aims to help with that.

Much of the coast, especially in Southern Maine, is overly fortified with ill-adaptable walls, pavement and development — something photographer Alex Maclean said he was struck by as he took images of the shoreline by air for the Monitor series. 

Small-town New England governments often aren’t well equipped to move quickly on such a complex, slow-moving threat. 

“There’s definitely a tendency to avoid planning and change for really as long as possible,” McKellar said. “Oftentimes, doing better comes down to ordinance changes, in large part, and it’s really boring stuff. …  A lot of times people don’t have the patience for that.” 

But she sees signs of hope — such as billions in new federal funding for climate adaptation, and increasing political support for “nature-based solutions.” These would include restored dunes and marshy shorelines that buffer more cheaply and flexibly against storms, as opposed to rock seawalls that shunt erosive impacts onto neighbors and will inevitably end up submerged again.

“Change is inevitable — change is going to happen whether we plan for it or not,” McKellar said. “But if we plan for it in a way that benefits biodiversity and habitat and humans, we’re going to get a lot of money to do it, and it can be for the better. If we want to just keep going down the same road and patching things up, taxpayers are going to have to spend a lot of their money.” 

Audience members from coastal towns agreed that they’re already seeing the effects of rising seas. Lauren Gallagher, of Ocean Park in Old Orchard Beach, said she came out to the GMRI event to learn more about what to expect and how communities like hers might adapt. 

“We know we can’t change Mother Nature,” Gallagher said, “but we have to see how we can work with her.” 

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Annie Ropeik

Annie Ropeik is an independent climate journalist in Camden. She previously reported for Spectrum News Maine in Portland and spent about a decade as a local public radio reporter in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana and New Hampshire. Her award-winning energy and environment reporting has appeared in Energy News Network and Inside Climate News and on NPR, the CBC and podcasts such as Outside/In and Living on Earth. A Maryland native and Boston University graduate, Annie serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
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