Planning forum focuses on rising sea levels

By Justin A. Rice
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2011

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The organizers of a new regional effort to combat rising sea levels didn’t launch their initiative in response to the widespread flooding that hit the North region on Oct. 4, but the timing doesn’t hurt their cause.

“The flooding of Peabody Square, a train line underwater in Swampscott, both those are member towns,’’ Sam Cleaves, senior regional planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said after conducting an Oct. 11 workshop at the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers on the rising sea levels in area communities.

“National disasters and climate preparedness are more on people’s minds since 2005 and [Hurricane] Katrina. We’re not playing on any specific disaster, but I think people are paying more attention to climate change after a string of big events - the snowstorms last winter and the flooding two weeks ago. They start to add up and people start to think about it.’’

While studies have shown that rising sea levels lead to land loss, more flooding, and saltwater invading bodies of fresh water, Cleaves said there isn’t necessarily a direct correlation between rising sea levels and the type of rainstorm and flooding the region saw on Oct. 4.

But one member of the workshop noted that the severe rain was coupled with high tides, an event that is likely to occur more often in the future.

“One of the pretty well-documented effects of climate change is you get intense precipitation events,’’ Cleaves said. “Sea-level rise sort of is a part of that, but when you get five inches of rain in three hours, it’s sort of hard for anyone’s local drains to keep up and you get flooding in low spots.’’

Julie Knisel, of the state Energy and Environmental Affairs Office of Coastal Zone Management, said sea levels have risen about a foot in the last 100 years.

“We could see double that rate in the next 50 to 100 years,’’ she said.

Cosponsored by MAPC’s North Shore Task Force, the Coastal Zone Management North Shore Conservation Commission Network, and the Great Marsh Coalition, the workshop was attended by about a dozen stakeholders from Rockport, Ipswich, Gloucester, and Amesbury.

One major topic in the workshop was how communities and individuals can help document and address sea-level change in their towns and cities.

Kathryn Glenn, the North Shore regional coordinator for Coastal Zone Management, said it is setting up a website at so residents can upload their own photos that document sea levels rising in their communities.

She said while the initiative is mostly for outreach purposes, if a series of photos is time-stamped and taken from the same spot, it could be used for documenting sea-level rise as well.

“Many people in planning already are thinking that way, and many of the people in the general public are not,’’ she said. “And photos are a very graphic way of doing that. . . . Old photos and old postcards are really neat to have because a lot of times you can get a comparison.’’

Barbara Warren, executive director of Salem Sound Coastwatch, said many of the issues raised at the MAPC forum were addressed in a 2008 study her organization conducted with Tufts University students.

Three years later, she said, recommendations made in the report have not yet been acted upon.

“I’m glad we’re having this conversation tonight,’’ said Warren.

But later in the meeting, Warren questioned whether a regional effort is really viable.

“I was looking at the Salem Sound region; and Marblehead is very different from Salem,’’ she said of the recommendations regarding climate change. “Everybody had a different picture of what it meant. I really don’t see it happening unless the money is behind it.’’

The chairman of the Ipswich Conservation Commission, Dave Standley, was slightly more optimistic.

“We’re engaging in a great experiment to see if that will work,’’ he said in response to Warren’s concerns. “Sort of like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.’’

The workshop also focused on available and soon-to-be available data that can help cities and towns map future water levels, establish a better baseline of information to track coastal changes, and identify additional ways to adapt to climate change.

Those data include LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) coordinates collected by the US Geological Survey this spring. Cleaves said the data will allow the state to give towns and cities more accurate data on their flood zones.

He said it will also help conservationists lobby against building in low areas, and could result in zoning changes.

Those data will be available to the state as early as January, according to Knisel. She said it’s unclear how long it will take for them to provide those data to cities and towns, and that they need to get a better sense from municipalities about what the best format is to present the data to them.

“We’re hoping with the information coming out in January we’ll be able to get [cities and towns] to look at their [flood-prone] facilities in more critical manor,’’ she said.

Cleaves said it’s crucial to make cash-strapped municipalities understand that it will be more cost-effective to deal with the rise in sea levels now than to kick the can down the road.

“We have to get cracking and at least have conversations about what are we going to do as a region,’’ he said, adding that a meeting will be held this winter to discuss specifically how to get cities and towns involved.

For more information about the event, contact Sam Cleaves at or 617-451-2770 x2013. For more information on MAPC and the North Shore Coalition, visit

Four scenes after storms in Peabody over the last 15 years.

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