Monday, April 24, 2006

Rising concerns

Sunday, April 23, 2006

By JOHN RICHARDSON, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Melting glaciers and ice sheets near the north and south poles are raising sea levels and the danger of storm and flood damage along Maine's coast, according to researchers and state officials.

"What feels like a big storm, and the property damage associated with it, will be coming more often," said Stephen Dickson, state marine geologist at the Maine Geological Survey. "There will be a lot more vulnerable coastal property."

The heightened concern follows recent reports, including one from a University of Maine researcher, that faraway glaciers and ice sheets are melting into the world's oceans much faster than anticipated.

Predictions that the oceans will rise as much as 2 feet by the year 2100 now appear to be too conservative, those researchers say. Some now suggest that a rise of 3 feet or more is likely within this century, more than enough to inundate parts of Maine's coast and intensify the economic and ecological damage of storms.

Dickson and others are working to create complex maps of Maine's coast to help predict where the worst damage would occur. And, he said, Maine's beach development rules may have to be adjusted.

Maine's rules are already among the nation's most stringent and have just gone through a lengthy review. But they assume the worst-case scenario would be only a 2-foot sea-level rise in the next 100 years. That now seems conservative, Dickson said.

The latest science has direct implications in places like Old Orchard Beach, a resort community with homes, condos, hotels, shops and an amusement park all within a few feet of maximum sea level.

Wes Hurst is one Old Orchard resident who has been following the reports of melting glaciers with one eye out his front window.

"We're interested in it because we're right here," he said, standing outside his cottage just across the sand dune from the gently breaking waves.

Hurst is not panicking, however, and no one in his neighborhood is selling. In fact, property values seem to keep going up, with tiny one-story cottages now worth nearly half a million dollars, he said.

The dune has protected his house so far, he said, although a storm surge once reached the end of Tunis Street just outside the house. "I figure this place has been here over 100 years," he said. And, despite the bleak news he's heard about Greenland and Antarctica, Hurst is still confident that rising sea levels won't be a problem here for another two or three generations.


Maine actually has been feeling the impact of a more gradual sea-level rise for decades.

The level of the ocean off Portland has risen nearly a foot in the last 100 years due to thermal expansion - warmer water takes up more space than colder water - and the gradual melting of ice sheets and glaciers. The impact is clear every time a fall or winter storm erodes Higgins Beach in Scarborough or undermines beachfront homes in Camp Ellis in Saco.

The financial implications of sea-level rise also are already clear. The federal government is planning to spend $25 million in the next few years to create a breakwater to protect Camp Ellis from storm erosion, said Joe Kelley, a coastal geologist at the University of Maine. "We're already paying," he said.

Kelley knows firsthand the potential costs for all taxpayers, not just those with coastal properties. He is heading back to New Orleans later this month as part of a scientific panel providing advice about the reconstruction on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

If the latest predictions prove true, the price may soon rise a lot higher.

Researchers now say the rate of melting near the north and south poles is accelerating as pollutants such as carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere and trap the Earth's heat, a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. The melting, in turn, appears to be contributing to the warming by providing more surface area that absorbs sunlight.

"There've been at least seven papers in the last three months that show, in one aspect or another, the change is happening faster than predicted," Dickson said.

Dickson said he has not yet calculated an acceleration of sea-level rise at the Portland tide gauge. It has been detected in other parts of the world, and Maine's measurements historically correspond to the global average.

One of the scientists trying to warn the world's coastal regions is Gordon Hamilton, associate professor at the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute.

Hamilton went to southeast Greenland last summer to document the migration and melting of large glaciers and was shocked at the change from just two years before. Some of the glaciers, which move toward the ocean like giant conveyer belts of ice, had sped up from a little under 4 miles per year in 2003 to almost 9 miles per year in 2005. Others had shrunk or retreated - because of melting and the calving of icebergs - by as much as 3 miles in one year.

"Everybody's sitting up and taking notice because nobody knew these things could happen this fast," Hamilton said. The implications are huge because the ice in Greenland alone, if it all were to melt, would raise sea levels by more than 20 feet, he said.

Other scientists have reported similar findings in Antarctica, where there is far more ice.

Hamilton, who travels around the world talking about his findings, said the impacts will be especially disastrous and rapid in places such as the South Pacific. "Whole nations will just disappear in the next couple of decades if nothing changes," he said.

Even in Maine, he said, the implications are severe. "Nearly the whole coastline is impacted in some way" if sea levels rise 3 feet. And, he said, "the geography of the coast and the geography of wealth in Maine kind of collide south of Portland, and that's the area most suceptible."

Maine's renowned rocky coastline does provide protection lacking in other coastal states, notably Florida and Lousiana. Those rocky headlands make up nearly half of the state's long coastline, according to Dickson. About the same amount of shoreline is made up of more vulnerable bluffs, such as the mud and cobble surrounding bays. And the remaining 2 percent of the Maine coast, the area most vulnerable, is sandy beach, he said.

Scientists are still years away, at least, from predicting exactly what will happen where, Dickson said.

Aside from all the uncertainty about how fast and how far the ocean level will rise, it's difficult to predict how the coastlines will react. Storms and erosion will reshape the coastline even as the water rises, sparing some areas and destroying others.


A sea-level rise of 2 or 3 feet or more would destroy or transform important coastal habitats, including marshes and estuaries that support fisheries. And, because the coast is so intensely developed and populated, the economic costs would be huge.

The Maine Geological Survey recently mapped what a 2-foot or 3-foot sea-level rise would mean for Drakes Island, a beachfront community in Wells. It shows that, at the highest possible tide, much of the community and the causeway linking it to the mainland would be flooded. Those homes that might still be dry would be vulnerable to even smaller storms.

A 1995 report published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows some possible outcomes for Old Orchard Beach and Camp Ellis in Saco.

At Camp Ellis, a 3-foot rise could flood 334 structures on 133 acres, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage, the report says.

The same rise could put Old Orchard's Palace Playland and the town's oceanfront neighborhoods, condos and hotels directly in the surf, the analysis showed.

The map doesn't seem to worry Tim Swenson, who is building a $20 million condo and retail project next to the beach in the potential flood zone identified a decade ago.

Swenson said the beach there has been stable, even growing in recent years, as sand moves in from other parts of the bay. He also said his building features about $1 million of defensive technology, including an elevated slab that will allow storm surges to flow underneath without harming the structure.

"This is the most advanced building in Maine next to the ocean," Swenson said. "This will stand the test of time."

Dickson said property owners typically don't think 100 years ahead, though he routinely urges them to build higher.

"People are more worried about next year's nor'easters," he said. "But the reason it's important is that future nor'easters might be coming in at a higher level."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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