Posted by: coastlinesproject | June 9, 2017

Duxbury; Sea Level Rise.

Trying To Be Objective About Sea-level Rise

By David A. Mittell, Jr.

Ned Lawson of Sunset Road recently made a soft-spoken but impassioned appeal to the Planning Board to take the threat of sea rise seriously. He noted that some projections have sea level rising five vertical feet in the next 70 years. He apologized for making such a long forecast.

“Golly,” I thought, “I can remember Fourth of July, 1947, as if it were yesterday. That’s not such a long time!” Mr. Lawson has been watching the tides rise on Blue Fish River for almost that long, and he knows what he sees. He reports that extreme high tides are much more frequent than they ever were before.

To appreciate what a five-foot rise would really mean, one need only to plant one’s feet at the current high tide line at any town landing, and with one’s own eyes (close enough to five feet higher than one’s feet) take a horizontal look inland and upland.

If one does this at the landing at Mattakeesett Court one will see that Washington Street and the Nathaniel Winsor Jr. house would be inundated. Beyond the line-of-sight, Blue Fish River will have flooded Harrison Street and the 15th and 16th holes of the Duxbury Yacht Club’s golf course. Is this scenario an exaggeration? With polar melting, it is argued, the risk is real.

Both sides of the climate debate conflate weather, especially unusual weather, with climate. One side takes advantage of a warm spell in January; the other of a snowstorm in Washington, D.C.; and The Boston Globe titles its daily weather report “climate.” It should know better.

This is nothing if not a complicated issue. We would do well to understand that exceptional events are what weather really is and always has been — and that a school of climate scientists (not “deniers”) argues that their frequency has not been increasing as is claimed.

It seems to me that what this coastal town first needs is the most accurate possible information. I may try tell you that at the Old Cove, where I like to swim, Little Harrifoot looks the same as it did in 1947. That isn’t accurate information!

Accurate information would be this: If we take the five-feet-in-70-years projection, the sea would be rising by an average of 6/7 of an inch a year. In 10 years it would be expected to rise more than eight and a half vertical inches — a significant amount, and more than it is believed to have risen in the twentieth century. (According to the projection, the rate of rise is expected to be greater in the latter part of the period than in its first years.)

What we can say with certainty in 2017 is that Duxbury needs accurate monitoring of what the tides are doing. Such monitoring, which might entail accounting for every high tide at several locations, would not come cheap. But a town whose lifeblood is its beach, its bay and its waterfront would be reckless not to have it.

Where would this lead? If the five-feet-in-70-years projection looked to be emerging, what without accurate monitoring could fairly be called draconian boondoggles — from breakwaters to radical bylaw changes — could be effected credibly, and in time.

Sea-level rise varies greatly in different parts of the world, and it involves land level as well as sea level. In New England, where the glaciers forced the land downward for thousands of years, dry land and the sea floor are still bouncing back. Thus the sea may be rising, but so too, possibly, is the land.

The discrepancy in the relative levels of land and sea is illustrated by the concrete fish traps the Romans built two millennia ago. Traps the size of modern swimming pools were designed to let fish enter at high tide and leave them alive, but trapped and there for easy taking when the tide receded. On the Adriatic coast today some of these constructions not only survive, they still work as designed. In other words, in 2,000 years sea and land levels have not varied up or down more than an inch or two with respect to each other.

But fish traps on the volcanic west coast of Italy are now submerged in 50 feet of water. Great villas of the Roman emperors have fallen into the sea. We have to ask if this is the fate of treasures such as the Nathaniel Winsor Jr. house. The right answer, I think, is maybe, maybe not. What the town most needs in coming years is accurate and up-to-date information.

The problem gets no less complicated when we try to address the legal ramifications of subsided real estate. Currently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — an arguably discredited agency the new president wants to de-fund — has the power to declare whose property newly lies in a flood zone. If in the future the town of Duxbury, or any other level of government, tries to restrict the rights of ownership, we can count on lawsuits on an unprecedented scale.

I need to disclose what may be a personal bias on this issue. In 26 trips to the former Soviet Union (and where I am editing this) I have witnessed the living pain three and four generations removed of the descendants of victims of the form of fascism once known as scientific socialism. Many well-educated Americans fell for this “science” — including a graduate of Powder Point School named Alger Hiss.

I thus believe that, while scientific fraud should be called out, science should not be accepted uncritically by laymen. Science is never “settled,” and often it is the outlier who sets it right.


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