Beachfront in the Time of Climate Change

It's the end of the summer, but it's starting to feel like the end of an era. 

Image Anthony Flint
Anthony Flint

It was time to pack up, the end of summer, and I bicycled one last time past a beach house the owners had named “High and Dry.” The prim structure was about 100 yards in from the crashing waves of Rhode Island’s South Coast, just east of Westerly. High and dry—maybe today, I thought. But in 30 or 40 years? Probably not.

There’s nothing like a summertime community all along New England’s coastline, from Watch Hill to Bar Harbor. One spends a fortune to rent four walls and roof at a spot that is all about location, and each lazy morning the sun umbrella gets planted in the sand, a statement of utter lack of agenda. At the understated enclave of Quononchontaug, there’s a pick-up softball game at the ballfield every Sunday, and a musical put on by kids. My youngest son learned to ride a bike on the placid street grid, rewarded with a Dell’s frozen lemonade. It’s all so very Norman Rockwell.

But this year, as everybody packs up and heads back to school in the ritual of Labor Day Weekend, there’s something sinister about being near the water. It’s an end-of-days feeling, the grim reality that, because of climate change, these places are going to be very different in 30 to 50 years. Vast acreage will be inundated. Many of the most sought-after houses on the coastline will be erased from the landscape. The ballfield may very likely get taken over by the adjacent tidal wetlands. It simply won’t be possible to return to the same summer place; it won’t be there, the way it is now.

Am I being a drama queen? Why think about this, this summer? Maybe it’s the steady drumbeat of information about just how bad the rest of this century is likely to be. Just this week, the latest draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the darkest future yet, with a possible sea level rise of 23 feet. And as reported here, scientists are being encouraged to share their feelings about climate disruption, beyond the facts and figures, at a new website.

The more one knows, the more terrible things seem. Where most people probably see a coastal pond, I’m calculating the hydraulics of a storm surge, the saltwater rushing down the breachway and saturating the ground well inland, roiling freshwater estuaries. Yet lifting this veil is a surefire conversation-stopper at any end-of-summer cookout. It’s the open secret, the thing best left unsaid, best left unconsidered.

Real estate agents are in the most uncomfortable position. Waterfront property is for very rich people who can afford the price tag and the flood insurance—and who have a very near-term time horizon. Nobody’s thinking 30 or 50 years out, the way they used to, about how the grandchildren will take over ownership of the investment. A friend in the real estate business was explaining that there’s a whole new game in his world: calculating where the new coastline is going to be, and thus what are effectively going to be the waterfront properties of the future. 

The insurance companies, of course, are well aware of what’s happening. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been very helpfully updating the website to determine flood risk. Though FEMA maps are not supposed to be used for planning per se, the message is clear: here’s what’s coming, folks. The “For Sale” signs with “Waterfront” stripped across the top might as well be the black mark used for condemned buildings being taken by eminent domain.

A little bit of denial is common, here and in other parts of the country—not the denial that global warming is happening or that man has contributed to it. Just plain old denial. From Weekapaug one can look across to the houses along Atlantic Avenue at Misquamicut beach, rebuilt on stilts after Superstorm Sandy. Everybody knows that’s a fleeting solution. But there they stand, for now.

The urban planning world is has also shifted, from aspirations of ways that the built environment can contribute to reduced emissions, to taking the necessary steps that will need to be taken to protect human settlement. This move from mitigation to adaptation, the focus on resilience, is based on a cold-eyed acceptance of rising seas and related disruptions, from wetter wets and drier drys. It’s a problem-solving, engineering-minded recognition of the inevitable, in large measure regardless of what the planet agrees to do about burning fossil fuels over the next decade or two.

In Rhode Island, this isn’t just an issue for the rich, either. The aptly named Ocean State is peppered with inlets and rivers and peninsulas, so rising seas will impact all manner of properties, all along the Pawtuxet and the Blackstone rivers, from Newport to Oakland Beach.

It’s the end of another summer, and we’re making plans for a year from now. I don’t want to be the crackpot holding the “end is near” picket. Lord knows it’s easier not to dread what’s going to occur in the long term. And that’s the exceptional quality of climate-induced sea level rise. Next year, for the most part, everything will be mostly the same. We can come back and won’t notice any discernible change at all. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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