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Story Publication logo May 12, 2021

Mother Nature, Humans Do Battle Along R.I.'s Battered Coast

Waves crash against the coastline. There is a building on the coast.

Rhode Island is the first state in the Lower 48 with an average temperature rise that has eclipsed 2...

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A revetment, a jigsaw of boulders, stands in front of Taylor Swift's Westerly mansion. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
The revetment Taylor Swift had built in front of her Westerly mansion likely cost a million dollars or more. This jigsaw of boulders is the most-famous hardened structure in Rhode Island designed to keep the encroaching sea at bay. This one, like all the rest, will eventually fail. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

The most violent and destructive natural disaster in New England recorded history forever changed Rhode Island’s coastline. In the eight decades since, the state’s iconic shoreline has continued to shift. It’s been pummeled by other major weather events, eaten away by slow and steady erosion, and dogged by the climate crisis.

Rhode Island’s modern-day shoreline transformation began in earnest on a Wednesday afternoon 83 years ago, when the “Great New England Hurricane” ripped through an unsuspecting populace and its built-up shoreline.

In a series titled Shifting Sands, we talk to those who have witnessed, documented, and studied the reshaping of the state’s shoreline during the past eight decades.

What have they seen? What do the changes mean? How have they been impacted? What does the future hold? These are some of the questions we will address in this 22-week series. This story examines the issue from a board perspective, while some of the other stories will focus on the personal experiences of those who have lived, worked, and played on and around Narragansett Bay, Block Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and the rest of the estuarine, tidal, and marine waters that make this the Ocean State. Other stories will address coastal-related issues.

New homes along East Beach in the Watch Hill section of Westerly are being built in an area vulnerable to a 100-year-storm, like the 1938 hurricane. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
New homes along East Beach in the Watch Hill section of Westerly are being built in an area vulnerable to a 100-year-storm, like the 1938 hurricane. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

The Biggest Little is shrinking
The state’s collection of popular beaches, windswept bluffs, and historic waterfronts in 21 coastal municipalities doesn’t look like it did before the hurricane of 1938 came steaming ashore, striking at the exact moment the highest high tide of the year was peaking.

The hurricane’s triple threat of wind, rain, and waves turned downtown Providence into a 17-foot-deep lake and inundated 3 miles of industrial waterfront. The state’s barrier beaches, crowded with homes, were wiped out.

Rhode Island, which is mostly at sea level or 10-30 feet above, is the second-most densely populated state, behind New Jersey, and its considerable coastline is once again crowded with homes, cottages, second homes, businesses, structures to hold back the sea, residents and tourists.

Its capital is completely hardened, leaving the pittance of natural buffers left there with no room to move. Other areas of the coast are really nothing more than loose deposits of sandy outwash, making these stretches vulnerable to rising seas and intensifying storm surge.

At normal high tide, the joke is the Biggest Little becomes the Biggest Littler. But what is happening isn’t particularly funny, unless you have gills and a tail. The state’s coastal landscape is shrinking, and taking with it human-built structures and ecosystems of importance such as salt marshes. As storms intensify, natural buffers are lost, shoreline disappears and storm surge reaches farther inland.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) says Rhode Island’s coastline is eroding by nearly 2 feet annually, with some areas more than double that. The agency’s detailed online mapping archive illustrates the changes.

Rhode Island’s shoreline loss is especially profound in high-energy wave areas along the state’s more-exposed southern coast, in communities from Napatree Point to Point Judith. It’s also readily noticeable on Block Island.

South County, also known to out-of-towners as Washington County, is barrier-beach land — low-lying strands of dunes and sand with mostly Indigenous names: Matunuck, Misquamicut, Quonochontaug, and Weekapaug. Like West Beach on Block Island, these spits of shifting sand nestled between open ocean and a bay or salt pond are continuously pounded by surf and wind. They are exposed when storms hit.

The hurricane of 1938 showed just how vulnerable they and we are. In her 2003 book “Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938,” R.A. Scotti noted that in the 7-mile stretch of barrier beach from the village of Quonochontaug to Charlestown Beach 99 percent of the shoreline properties, some 700 buildings, were demolished.

Of the 433 people who died in Rhode Island that day, the greatest loss of life was witnessed along the beaches of South County.

Barrington’s Bay Spring neighborhood, along the banks of where the Providence River meets Narragansett Bay, is one of the state’s most exposed areas. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
Barrington’s Bay Spring neighborhood, along the banks of where the Providence River meets Narragansett Bay, is one of the state’s most exposed areas. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

Accelerated change
Aerial photos dating back to 1939 compared to contemporary photos now taken every few years of Rhode Island’s coastal areas show the state is shrinking. The photos have provided coastal geologists with more data to document and study Rhode Island’s changing shoreline landscape. The information is compiled on the Rhode Island Geographic Information System website.

Bryan Oakley, professor of environmental earth science at Eastern Connecticut State University, said it’s difficult to pin the biggest coastline changes on the climate crisis.

“You can’t fully blame climate change, but it has accelerated the process,” the geoscientist said.

Rhode Island’s coastline is a transitory environment in which change is natural and unforgiving. But a century-plus of sustained coastal development, buoyed by federal flood insurance, has significantly changed the dynamic.

A rapidly increasing number of human beings and our relentless consumption of natural resources is taking a toll on the natural world. It’s upending the climate by changing natural systems, such as slowing down the Gulf Stream and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets.

Drastic global changes don’t happen in a bubble. Greenland, in 2019 alone, shed 532 billion tons from its giant ice sheet; the Arctic, in the past 30 years, warmed at roughly twice the rate as the entire globe; the remote Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, known for its extreme cold, hit a record 100 degrees Fahrenheit last summer during a six-month heat wave that gripped the Arctic Circle; research published in January found global ice sheet losses have soared from about 760 billion tons annually in the 1990s to more than 1.2 trillion tons a year in the 2010s.

The repercussions are banging on Rhode Island’s seaside front door.

“Conditions are changing,” said Teresa Crean, a community planning and education specialist for Rhode Island Sea Grant. “Everyday high tides are causing flooding.”

Market Street and Jamiel’s Park in Warren are among the places being impacted by the regular movement of the tides. It’s also now routine that during king tides — the highest of high tides — and storm tides that parts of Rhode Island, such as the Brown Street municipal parking lot in the historic North Kingstown village of Wickford, the Melville marine industrial area in Portsmouth and sections of Westerly, flood.

Shoreline along Narragansett Bay, such as the Quidnessett section of North Kingstown and Conimicut Point in Warwick, are facing similar erosion problems to those areas along the open-ocean coast of South County.

Storm-drain gates have been installed in Newport’s Point neighborhood to prevent seawater from backing up into the system. Nuisance flooding is a growing problem along the coast, especially in Warwick. Last fall, when municipal planners and environmental organizations asked for photographic help in documenting flooding problems caused by extreme high tides in 10 communities, Warwick was the only community without specific areas designated. Instead, photographers were told to go “anywhere and everywhere.”

Businesses in the Port of Providence include a liquid asphalt plant, an oil terminal, a liquefied natural gas facility and several chemical-processing plants. The city’s industrial waterfront also serves as a depot for fuel oil and ethanol. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier won’t protect the public from any of this nastiness should a major storm strike. (Tom Wojick/for ecoRI News)
Businesses in the Port of Providence include a liquid asphalt plant, an oil terminal, a liquefied natural gas facility and several chemical-processing plants. The city’s industrial waterfront also serves as a depot for fuel oil and ethanol. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier won’t protect the public from nastiness should a major storm strike. Image by Tom Wojick/ecoRI News. United States.

Providence’s industrial waterfront, which stores fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals, sits outside the city’s hurricane barrier and is one of southern New England’s most exposed areas to rising waters and less-predictable future storms.

Barrington’s densely populated Bay Spring neighborhood, which juts out to where the Providence River meets Narragansett Bay, is one of the town’s most at-risk areas. Since Barrington is one of Rhode Island’s lowest-lying communities, that makes this neighborhood one of the state’s most vulnerable. Increased flooding and severe coastal erosion have already given the neighborhood an up-close-and-personal look at the Ocean State’s shoreline future.

Crean noted that to deal with these shoreline changes, some of which are coming quickly, requires making educated decisions and spending money wisely. It means making difficult decisions. It’s about adapting.

“When does it make sense to invest in an area?” she said. “When it’s underwater in the future may be too late, or you give people the chance to enjoy the asset for 50 years before it is underwater. We need to be constantly adapting to the changing shoreline. We can’t let it deteriorate.”

Persistent coastal development, however, makes addressing the challenges of Rhode Island’s shifting shoreline much more daunting.

Oakley noted that since the second half of the 20th century increased development along Rhode Island’s shoreline has impacted coastal processes, increasing the risk of greater storm damage and exacerbating erosion.

Nevertheless, the development of the state’s precarious coastline continues.

“People are willing to accept a certain amount of risk,” the Westerly resident said. “You can show them the risk all you want. You either accept the acceleration of sea-level rise or you don’t. But know it’s going up and will continue to accelerate.”

There’s plenty of risk along the Rhode Island coast, as some $4.5 billion worth of property lies on land less than 5 feet above the high-tide line.

Laura Dwyer, CRMC’s public educator and information coordinator, noted that sea-level rise is the biggest natural challenge Rhode Island faces. She said the biggest challenge CRMC faces is “continuing to strike a balance between protection and conservation and development. It’s a high-pressure situation, and seems to be more so these days.”

CRMC projections indicate that 11.5 percent of residential, 18.9 percent of commercial and 13.8 percent of public-service structures along the state’s coast are currently exposed to the impacts of sea-level rise and storm surge. Those percentages will only increase as sea levels rise, stronger and more frequent storms roll in, and coastal development continues.

For instance, if the deadly hurricane of 1938 struck Rhode Island now, when the local sea level is nearly a foot higher, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history would pack an even bigger wallop. The Category 5 hurricane resulted in a surge of water 9.5 feet above high-tide levels. The 1938 hurricane caused nearly $5 billion in damage in seven states, according to Scotti’s book. Rhode Island was hit the hardest.

She noted in her book that erosion caused by a fierce hurricane, like the one that hit New England on Sept. 21, 1938, can exceed the effects of a century of ordinary wave action.

The diminished natural landscape caused by unrelenting development during the past 80-plus years and a lack of respect for natural processes have made Rhode Island’s coastline more susceptible to storm violence.

A ’38-like punch thrown now, as professor Oakley noted, would smash even more homes, businesses, and infrastructure — a concerning thought, considering the hurricane of 1938 made quick work of the 400 cottages that lined Misquamicut Beach in Westerly.

Superstorm Sandy’s glancing blow from nine years ago caused $11.2 million in damages and left 122,000 Rhode Islanders without power. Sandy surged 8 feet above high tide. When the superstorm hit, it was barely a tropical storm and some 200 miles offshore, but it loitered for so long — nearly three days and several tide cycles — that it was able to inflict plenty of damage.

Oakley, an expert on shoreline erosion, noted that rebuilding along the coast after storms is futile. He said retreat is the only sure option in some areas, such as Matunuck and Misquamicut. Much of the state’s coastline doesn’t have the space and time to rebuild itself.

“The increase in frequency and strength of smaller storms cuts into recovery time,” Oakley said.

A white paper published in August 2019 in the journal Science presented a “case for strategic and managed climate retreat.” It called for a withdrawal that is both effective and equitable.

“Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat moving people and assets out of harm's way — but why, where, when, and how they will retreat,” according to the paper’s authors.

James Boyd, a coastal policy analyst and CRMC’s deputy director, said global rates of sea-level rise are following the worst-case scenario projected in the 2014 assessment report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He said the global rate of melting ice and the acceleration of sea-level rise it is causing means the Ocean State should be “planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”

“We are going to have to be thinking far more seriously about moving back from the shoreline,” Boyd said. “Low-lying areas along the shoreline will be inundated as we get into the latter part of this century. To think anything less than worst-case scenario as we get toward the end of this century is not a prudent idea. We really need to be thinking about 50 years out and beyond, and very few planning horizons are looking at that.”

The climate crisis is slowly altering human reality. Boyd, Oakley, and other coastal policy experts, such as Save The Bay’s David Prescott, believe managed retreat needs to be part of Rhode Island’s new reality.

“Moving back is super challenging, but we have to have this conversation,” Prescott said. “Elevating works, but it’s not a long-term solution. Trying to build on every piece of real estate by the water is not the best solution going forward.”

Mother Nature has already forced others to pull back.

Most of the residents of the Ocean Breeze neighborhood in Staten Island, N.Y., opted not to return after Sandy destroyed their homes. The permafrost in Newtok, on Alaska’s west coast, has become so soft that villagers can’t stabilize their homes. After the Pecan Acres neighborhood flooded 17 times in 30 years, the Louisiana Office of Community Development relocated the neighborhood to higher ground.

In late March, the handful of workers who operated the National Weather Service station in Chatham, Mass., were evacuated because of fears the property could fall into the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently, the Cape Cod weather station had a buffer of about 100 feet of land to a bluff that dropped into the sea, but climate-fueled storms have accelerated erosion, as 6 feet of land could be lost in a single day there.

More intense and frequent rains, combined with stronger storm surge and a rising sea level, are routinely flooding coastal areas, such as the Common Fence Point neighborhood in Portsmouth. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
More intense and frequent rains, combined with stronger storm surge and a rising sea level, are routinely flooding coastal areas, such as the Common Fence Point neighborhood in Portsmouth. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

Rising waters and poor decisions
A century and a half of burning coal, oil and natural gas, which has fueled rising seas and more frequent and intense storms, and decades of poor land-use management are conspiring to reshape the Ocean State.

While Rhode Island’s sea level rose just 10 inches between 1930 and 2017, the rate in recent years is increasing, according to CRMC projections. In fact, the state agency says Rhode Island is in an accelerated sea-level rise “hotspot,” with rates higher than the global average. Current projections indicate sea levels will rise up to 9.6 feet by 2100.

Those who study the coastal landscape, geology and climate change agree that the Ocean State’s 21 coastal communities need long-term solutions that will require a different way of thinking of how people live along the coast. The status quo will drown.

During his time at the University of Rhode Island (2017-2019) studying how the state’s coastline has responded to past sea-level-rise changes, Simon Engelhart’s research discovered sea-level rise is happening faster now than at any point in Rhode Island’s past 3,000 years, in part because the Ocean State is sinking — thanks to land subsidence, the gradual settling of the Earth’s surface owing to subsurface movement of materials.

Engelhart, now an assistant professor of geography at Durham University, found that low-lying areas such as Island Park in Portsmouth and Oakland Beach in Warwick are among the state’s most vulnerable areas.

The unpredictable storms of the climate crisis are also playing an increasing role in reshaping the Ocean State.

Beaches, such as Charlestown Town Beach, along Rhode Island’s South County coast are stripped of sand during powerful storms. (Tom Wojick/for ecoRI News)
Beaches, such as Charlestown Town Beach, along Rhode Island’s South County coast are stripped of sand during powerful storms. Image by Tom Wojick/ecoRI News. United States.

In 2012 Superstorm Sandy, a moderate storm compared to the 1938 hurricane or Carol, a Category 3 hurricane that struck 16 years later, stripped about 1,600 tons of sand from Narragansett Town Beach. Narragansett’s 88-year-old seawall was powerless to stop the theft. Mother Nature doesn’t fear the mile-long, steel sheet-pile capped with concrete.

The town routinely trucks in sand, generally at the beginning of the busy summer season, to replenish Narragansett Town Beach. After Sandy hit, trucks delivered some 6,000 cubic yards of sand to replace the washed-away beach. In total, to deal with erosion caused by that one storm, the town paid $167,720 for beach sand, $42,000 for dune sand and $40,000 for beachgrass.

Beach replenishments, however, aren’t going to save Rhode Island’s economically important tourist attractions and the infrastructure built on and around them. In fact, no amount of concrete, sand bags, drift fences, artificial reefs, future technology or super robot can hold back the encroaching sea and the angry storms it feeds. All of our “solutions” are just Band-Aids Mother Nature rips off in due time.

“Coastal structures almost always fail, especially without proper maintenance,” Oakley said.

Hardened structures, which interfere with the natural movement of sediment, can also create more problems than they solve. Seawalls, for instance, are designed to deflect oncoming waves. But this diverted force is pushed back out to sea, which can accelerate erosion in front of the structure — Oakley said geologists and engineers are still debating this point — and cause scouring to the outside edges that damages adjacent properties and more quickly eats away nearby shores. Ultimately, the area behind the seawall erodes and the structure becomes useless.

This reality, however, doesn’t stop some coastal residents, municipalities and businesses from demanding the right to build new seawalls despite regulations that prohibit them in many areas, most notably along waters classified by CRMC as Type 1. These waters are defined as areas of natural habitat or scenic value, or areas that have been deemed unsuitable for hardening because of their exposure to severe wave action, flooding, and erosion. The state agency says nearly half of Rhode Island’s coastline is unsuitable for hard-structure protections.

Crean, of Rhode Island Sea Grant, said building new seawalls isn’t and shouldn’t be part of Rhode Island’s strategy to deal with coastal erosion.

Seawalls, especially those that predate CRMC regulations, can also harm the buildings they are intended to protect. The Andrea Hotel, a landmark in the Misquamicut area of Westerly that celebrated its 100th birthday in 2012, had to be torn down and rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy’s visit in the fall of that year.

While the hotel sustained flood damage, it also suffered structural damage from seawall debris thrown by the superstorm.

“We can’t build a 10-foot-high wall around everything,” Oakley said.

Hardened coastal structures, such as those used to fortify Island Park in Portsmouth, can only offer so much protection from Mother Nature’s fury. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
Hardened coastal structures, such as those used to fortify Island Park in Portsmouth, can only offer so much protection from Mother Nature’s fury. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

The only real solution now is to give nature room to breathe, through uncompromising coastal construction setbacks and property buyouts. But protecting the tax base can be blinding; the fear of being taken to court paralyzing.

Rhode Island has shown little interest in taking such difficult but necessary steps, especially when it comes to saying no to the wealthy and powerful and buying out at-risk properties — although the tide appears to be turning this year, as the General Assembly seems, for the first time, willing to address the climate crisis head-on.

Historically, though, the state and its 39 municipalities have largely ignored a century of Mother Nature’s not-so-subtle hints, even if some lessons have been learned.

The city of Cranston, for instance, has purchased and razed about two dozen houses in flood-prone neighborhoods along the Pawtuxet and Pocasset rivers. The town of Warren has a plan for its Market Street to Metacom Avenue commercial corridor that proposes to buy flood-prone properties and relocate the displaced to a redeveloped corridor, where a setting of retail, restaurants and mixed-income housing would offer safety out of the floodplain.

Other actions of various effectiveness include elevating critical infrastructure — Rhode Island has done a laudable job at elevating wastewater treatment facilities, not an easy or inexpensive task — and updating the state’s antiquated stormwater infrastructure that was designed to handle rainfall of the 1950s.

Others, however, have failed to learn from past bouts with Mother Nature. Besides severely damaging the Andrea Hotel and other structures along Westerly’s Misquamicut State Beach, Superstorm Sandy also dumped about 18,000 tons of sand onto Atlantic Avenue and covered portions of the salt marsh around Winnapaug Pond with beach sand. While Rhode Island’s southernmost town was hit hard by Sandy, of the 29 waterfront properties damaged by the superstorm, only five were constructed to better withstand the building forces of the climate crisis.

The Misquamicut neighborhood — a densely built area on and around Atlantic Avenue, with hundreds of homes with little to no elevation that sit a stone’s throw from the open ocean — is one of the state’s most exposed places to sea-level rise and storm surge. Neighborhood streets are likely to be flooded regularly by 2050 or 2060. By the end of this century, CRMC’s Boyd said Misquamicut “will be uninhabitable because you won’t be able to get to your home. The streets will be flooded even beyond just the daily high tides.”

“Where you’ve got a highly developed shoreline with a mix of homes, commercial businesses, and structural shoreline protection … you get some destruction during storms and the overwash comes up over those structures,” said Boyd, speaking of the situation along Atlantic Avenue, “and then the Department of Public Works goes down the day after a storm, digs up all the sand that is in the road, and puts it back out on the beach.”

That effort alone wasn’t enough to restore Misquamicut State Beach after Sandy visited. A few years after the superstorm, the popular Westerly beach saw one of the most extensive beach restoration efforts undertaken in Rhode Island. The state trucked in 84,000 cubic yards of sand to restore the beach, at a cost of $3.1 million in federal relief money. This type of reactive, and mostly futile, response isn’t sustainable.

When another 100-year event like the ’38 hurricane or a Sandy-like storm hits again, or as lesser and more frequent storms cause more gradual erosion, the cost to replenish the Ocean State’s beaches will only become more expensive.

The state’s beach systems need room to follow a natural progression that has been sped up by the climate crisis. But there’s little room left to accommodate that need.

The relentless force of the sea is a venerable foe for human-made structures, such as this seawall at South Kingstown Town Beach. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News staff)
The relentless force of the sea is a venerable foe for human-made structures, such as this seawall at South Kingstown Town Beach. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

Big changes will be required

Sea-level rise and coastal erosion are obvious concerns, as Rhode Island’s 420 miles of coastline — the second-highest coast-to-total-area ratio in the United States — is quickly changing. Much of the state’s coastal development is going to disappear. Dismissing this reality would be irresponsible. The encroaching sea is placing natural systems, people, property and vital infrastructure such as drinking-water supplies, utilities and roads in harm’s way.

Coastal roads in Narragansett and Jamestown are at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise. The village of Wickford and downtown Providence are at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise. The 700-foot-long, 25-foot-high hurricane barrier, built in the 1960s, that spans the Providence River a mile south of downtown wasn’t designed to protect the capital from sea-level rise. It was built to stop storm surge coming up the bay into the city. It wasn’t designed to have gates that close at every high tide.

Boyd said a levee system will ultimately be needed.

“At some point in the future, Providence, if it is going to stay where it is with all the infrastructure and everything else, there will have to be a permanent levee system to keep the bay out of downtown Providence,” he said.

In Westerly, which Boyd called “the poster child of substantial coastal change,” sections of Bay Street, in the town’s affluent Watch Hill section, will be underwater with 3 feet of sea-level rise. Newport’s waterfront, the heart of a thriving tourist economy, and its harbor-side neighborhoods are projected to be inundated by an additional 5 feet of sea.

It’s important to note, however, that while coastal erosion is a major economic problem to the developed environment, it’s a natural process that provides crucial benefits. Without coastal erosion, many biologically and economically productive bays, estuaries, and salt marshes, not to mention the Ocean State’s revenue-generating beaches, wouldn’t exist.

Human activity, however, is accelerating this natural process. Coastal changes that may have taken thousands of years are now happening in a fraction of that time.

By 2050, much of the country’s coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding annually because of dramatically accelerating impacts from sea-level rise, according to a 2014 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A 2011 assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey found that more than two-thirds of beaches from New England to the Mid-Atlantic had lost ground during the previous three decades. Of the 1,135 coastal points studied between Horseneck Beach in Westport, Mass., and Napatree Point in Westerly, more than four-fifths were retreating, according to the 65-page report.

Sea-level rise puts Newport, the Ocean State’s unofficial tourism capital, at risk. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
Sea-level rise puts Newport, the Ocean State’s unofficial tourism capital, at risk. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

There are no simple solutions to deal with coastal erosion intensified and accelerated by the climate crisis, but there’s also no reason to panic. The situation requires smart decisions, like limiting any further coastal development, bold action and well-supported initiatives.

The difficult part there is getting a varied group of people to understand the benefits of adaptation.

“People are the hard part, not nature,” said Jennifer West, coastal training program coordinator for the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Adaptation comes in all shapes, sizes, and costs.

Along the vulnerable Westerly coast, for example, some buildings have been moved 30 or so feet back and others are being built higher off the ground. Nearly 200 beach parking spaces have been removed to create a bigger coastal buffer. Seaside tennis courts wiped out by Sandy weren’t replaced. Some of the “permanent” snack bars that once lined the town’s popular beaches are now on wheels — able to flee the scene when a storm approaches.

Instead of rehabilitating, building, and maintaining costly seawalls and other engineered coastal defenses — efforts NOAA says are costly and ultimately ineffective at preventing further erosion — that time, effort and money would be better spent restoring and protecting salt marshes, coastal vegetation and other ecosystems that have traditionally served as natural buffer zones for coastal communities. Nature’s infrastructure has been around longer, works better, is more pleasing to the eye and is less expensive. Natural shorelines also recover quicker and better.

For instance, dunes, natural piles of sand, and the grasses that grow from them provide an excellent line of defense against the rising sea.

Marshes, coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by the tides, are often the first line of defense for coastal communities. Situated at the transition between land and sea, they support a diversity of wildlife and are largely responsible for the region’s valuable commercial and recreational fisheries. They buffer the coast from storms, protect against flooding that can overwhelm septic systems and pollute drinking-water supplies, and they filter contaminants out of stormwater runoff thereby improving coastal water quality.

They also reduce erosion by holding sediments in place with their root systems, preventing it from washing out with the tide, and by reducing wave height, which weakens the erosive power of storm surge.

However, coastal wetlands — freshwater marshes, intermediate marsh with a bit of salinity, brackish marsh with more salinity and salt marsh — are also one of the most susceptible ecosystems to climate change and accelerated sea-level rise. These natural systems need space and time to adapt to the climate crisis. The state’s built-up shoreline doesn’t accommodate this need. Once they are gone, it’s difficult to bring them back.

Given the environmental and economic importance of these coastal systems, Save The Bay is leading dune restoration projects. The Nature Conservancy and CRMC are conducting marsh and shoreline restoration projects. While these organizations’ efforts are being assisted and/or duplicated by state agencies, academic institutions, small nonprofits, and volunteers, there is plenty of work that needs to be done.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, Allin’s Cove in Barrington was bordered by about 30 acres of salt marsh. Much of that marsh is now gone, filled in to accommodate development. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
Up until the middle of the 20th century, Allin’s Cove in Barrington was bordered by about 30 acres of salt marsh. Much of that marsh is now gone, filled in to accommodate development. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

A mapping project by CRMC projects more than half of Rhode Island’s remaining marshes will be lost if the sea rises by 3 feet. A foot of sea-level rise would wipe out 13 percent of the Ocean State’s marshes; 5 feet of rise would destroy 87 percent.

A multiagency report published in 2015 noted that a considerable percentage of Rhode Island’s coastal wetlands could be permanently lost by the end of this century unless upland areas directly abutting coastal wetlands are protected.

While Rhode Island’s coast is currently bordered by about 4,000 acres of salt marsh, 53 percent of the state’s marshes have been destroyed or degraded through human activity during the past few centuries, according to the report.

“We already know we have lost salt marshes from two major activities,” said Boyd, CRMC’s deputy director. “Number one is from Colonial times really we’ve filled a lot of coastal wetlands in the state, unfortunately. At present date, we only have roughly 50 percent of the coastal wetlands that we had before colonization of Europeans.”

One of the more significant examples of salt marsh loss is the Great Salt Cove and its associated wetlands in Providence, where over many decades the cove was filled and developed as new roads and buildings were constructed to support an ever-expanding city. The downtown financial district near the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers sits on the remains of that earlier cove and its salt marshes.

The second major activity Boyd refers to is sea-level rise, which is changing the landscape and altering natural systems such as drainage.

“We know based on our modeling efforts that with continued sea-level rise we are expecting to lose significantly more coastal wetlands,” Boyd said.

This widespread destruction of coastal wetlands caused directly or indirectly by human activity isn’t limited to Providence. And it’s not limited to the actions of European colonists.

The coastal portion of the Sapowet Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Tiverton has already experienced more than 90 feet of shoreline erosion in the past 75 years. Large areas of salt marsh in the three small beach communities that make up the village of Quonochontaug in Charlestown have transitioned into open water or are severely degraded.

At the turn of the 20th century, Allin’s Cove in Barrington was bordered by about 30 acres of salt marsh. Much of that marsh is now gone. While natural silting and shifting sands are partly to blame, other sections disappeared because they were filled to accommodate road construction and other development.

In 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers filled 11 acres of the salt marsh with dredge spoils from navigation projects, reducing Allin’s Cove to about one-fourth its original size. Various stakeholders have since spent time and money repairing the damage, most of it caused by humans. But neighborhood flooding remains a problem.

To deal with Rhode Island’s many coastal challenges, state and local decision-makers need to adapt to the impacts of erosion, sea-level rise, salt marsh loss and more frequent storms. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
To deal with Rhode Island’s many coastal challenges, state and local decision-makers need to adapt to the impacts of erosion, sea-level rise, salt marsh loss and more frequent storms. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

Tools to plan accordingly
CRMC created the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan, better known as the Beach SAMP, a decade ago to bring state, federal, municipal, academic and private-sector interests together to create a plan to help coastal communities adapt to Rhode Island’s short-term and long-term shoreline change.

The comprehensive and nationally recognized document, along with its partner STORMTOOLS, explain and show the costs and risks involved when it comes to our infatuation with shoveling against the tide. Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) maps created by CRMC and its partners depict the impact 1, 3 and 5 feet of sea-level rise will have on coastal wetlands.

These tools provide information and guidance to empower state and local decision-makers as they plan for, recover from and adapt to the impacts of coastal storms, erosion, sea-level rise and salt marsh loss.

CRMC has noted that “a 30-year mortgage taken out today on a home or business could experience 2-3 feet of sea level rise during the loan term.”

The agency’s nationally recognized online tools can also create trepidation, as Rhode Island Sea Grant’s Crean confessed.

“When I’m asked if STORMTOOLS ‘bums me out,’ I answer that it really does when I see swaths of public beach projected to be under two high tides daily in future years,” Crean said. “[T]he beaches don’t have space to migrate because of adjacent development.”

The state’s built-up coastline is altered most significantly by hurricanes and sou'easters — more famous nor’easters hit Greater Boston and Cape Cod harder than they do Rhode Island. Professor Oakley said storms out of the southeast, like the ’38 hurricane, punish the Ocean State more severely.

Spring and to a greater extent winter storms are causing much of Rhode Island’s more-abrupt shoreline changes. Although Northeast winters are becoming warmer and somewhat milder, more extreme and frequent storms are on the rise thanks to a changing climate.

A white paper published in January 2020 in the journal Nature Climate Change found that from the winter of 2008-09 through 2017-18 there were 27 major Northeast winter storms, three to four times the totals for each of the previous five decades.

The bluffs at Town Landing in Little Compton are collapsing. Work began last fall to address this significant erosion problem. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)
The bluffs at Town Landing in Little Compton are collapsing. Work began last fall to address this significant erosion problem. Image by Frank Carini. United States.

Surge from these large storms, and from smaller but more frequent and intense weather events, washes away dunes and damages salt marshes. This wave energy, steadily growing stronger by warming waters and a warming atmosphere, pound a coastline saturated and weakened by more frequent heavy rains, which have, according to CRMC, increased by 71 percent in New England since 1958, causing bluffs, like those at Crescent Park in East Providence and Town Landing in Little Compton, to collapse.

Charlestown Town Beach has lost about 150 feet to erosion since 1939. More than 4 feet of sand wound up on Charlestown Beach Road as a result of Sandy. Waves caused by that 2012 superstorm tossed boulders around like beach balls along the Charlestown Breachway. The storm’s lingering fury damaged sections of the internationally known Cliff Walk in Newport, keeping it closed for months as expensive repairs were made.

If humans and our activities weren’t stoking the climate-crisis problem, these natural changes would be little cause for concern. Rocks ripped from headlands would erode to sand. Dunes would recover. Beachgrass, leymus, and sea oats would grow back. Salt marshes would have room to adapt.

Human interaction with the shoreline, however, has transformed it in fundamental ways. Our intrusion, often of the shortsighted variety, has created a bevy of problems. For proof, travel Route 1 to a popular summer destination in South Kingstown where there is no permanent solution to a serious problem.

The seaside community of Matunuck demonstrates what happens when the ocean, the coastal landscape, and development intersect. Matunuck’s disappearing coast — erosion rates have increased so significantly in the past few decades that during high tide the shoreline in some areas is no wider than 12 feet — is threatening to undercut Matunuck Beach Road and leave hundreds of homes and businesses with no way to enter or leave. The water main buried under Matunuck Beach Road is also being put in jeopardy.

A 1938 hurricane-like storm with 9.5 feet of surge above high tide or a Carol-like hurricane with 7 feet of surge will overwhelm Matunuck Beach Road.

To prevent the road from being destroyed and people, at least those without access to a boat, stranded, a 220-foot-long steel sheet-pile was built along a Type 1 water. Another 500 feet or so is planned for this year.

To the west of the steel sheet-pile, a stone revetment — an engineered rock wall built years ago to hold back Mother Nature — lies in ruin.

The cycle continues. Band-Aids will be flung.

To see more stories in this series, click here.

Video by Frank Carini. United States.


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