A banner dropped by members of climate activist movement Extinction Rebellion in Boston’s Seaport warning of the threat to the district of sea level rise. David Abel, a COM professor of the practice of journalism, has made a documentary film about how rising seas pose a clear and present danger to Boston. Photo by Christiana Botic for the Boston Globe via Getty Images Members
Nearly 25 years ago, just after moving to Boston, I found myself in a strange urban wasteland—a barren, windswept section of the city covered in vast parking lots and abandoned warehouses.
What struck me as peculiar was that the forsaken land was seemingly valuable waterfront property.
City officials saw it that way, too, especially after local, state, and federal agencies spent billions of dollars cleaning up the adjacent Boston Harbor. Within a few years, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01) began promoting the area as the city’s “Innovation District.”
The city and state spent billions of additional dollars creating the foundation of a new neighborhood, which today has been branded as the Seaport. They succeeded in attracting developers, cultural institutions, and Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Fidelity Investments, General Electric, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
As the neighborhood began to take shape in earnest about a decade ago, scientists at the University of Massachusetts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among others, began issuing report after report about the potential dangers of rising seas.
Sea levels are now nearly a foot higher than they were a century ago. Boston Harbor floods the Seaport and other areas of the city about a dozen times a year, up from two or three times a year about 50 years ago, according to NOAA.
Like a lot of Bostonians, I’ve been struck by the cognitive dissonance of the decision to keep building in an area at sea level, on landfill, and hard on the coast. It also struck me as strange that this surge of development was happening in a region that probably has more climate scientists per capita than just about any other place on the planet.
I began wondering who would pay to defend this new neighborhood, which, unlike other places imperiled by rising seas, was built well after policymakers understood the threats posed by climate change. And I wondered who would ultimately foot the bill to cover the costs of the inevitable flooding.
A few years ago, after writing a succession of stories about the dire projections of rising seas in the Boston Globe, where I have covered environmental issues for more than a decade as a reporter, I felt like words in the paper weren’t enough to convey the gravity of the threats. To get people to pay attention, I thought it might help to tell the story in a different way—one that would help people visualize or comprehend what’s coming.
So, I decided to make a documentary film about how these threats are not distant or abstract, but how they very much pose a clear and present danger. The film, Inundation District, premiered in October at the GlobeDocs Film Festival. It’s now screening in venues all around Boston and beyond. The film explores the fateful decisions made and billions of dollars spent on erecting a new district—and the threats that it now faces.
Climate scientists say that the accelerating melt of the ice sheets covering Antarctica will have a disproportionate impact on cities along the East Coast. As ice melts on the South Pole, the resulting gravitational pull on the ocean, changing ocean currents, and the gradual sinking of land in the Northeast means that Boston and other nearby communities are likely to experience a 25 percent higher increase of sea levels than other parts of the planet.
The latest estimates for rising seas are downright frightening.
If we don’t sharply curb emissions soon, Boston Harbor could rise between four feet and seven feet by the end of the century. In the worst-case scenarios—if the glaciers on much of Antarctica and Greenland collapse—we could be looking at as much as 15 feet of sea rise by the end of the century and an incomprehensible 55 feet by 2200, according to the most recent projections by scientists at UMass Boston.
If seas rise as projected, it would be devastating to the Seaport, putting tens of billions of dollars of new real estate at risk. By the middle of the century, the city will likely see 3,000 properties a year damaged as a result of flooding, costing an estimated $62 million a year—75 percent more than today, according to a report by First Street Foundation, a New York nonprofit research group that specializes in flood risks.
The foundation also estimates that of 49 commercial buildings in the Seaport, 44 of them are at risk today of being damaged by flooding; in 30 years, all but one of them will be. The foundation’s report also found that the Seaport has a greater flood risk than 99 percent of the rest of the zip codes in Massachusetts.
Officials have been considering a range of measures to protect the city, including extending temporary barriers around vulnerable buildings and tunnels, and erecting a massive sea wall in Boston Harbor, which would cost billions of dollars. But the city still lacks any plan to defend the waterfront—and, at the same time, the cranes are still in motion, erecting new condominiums and offices.
Climate scientists say it’s just a matter of time before a major storm leaves much of the Seaport underwater, literally and fiscally. Earlier this month, we got a taste of that, when the city experienced its fourth-highest tide on record, and harbor waters gushed into the Seaport and flooded other parts of the city.
And yet, still, new buildings are taking shape every day in the Seaport, as if 2023 wasn’t the planet’s hottest year on record and the tides weren’t rising inexorably. After two years of working on this film, it’s hard not to experience that plangent cognitive dissonance every time I’m back in the neighborhood.
You can see Inundation District at an upcoming screening. It will be featured on February 1 at WBUR’s CitySpace, where there will be a panel discussion with Melissa Hoffer, climate chief of Massachusetts, Kathy Abbott, president and CEO of Boston Harbor Now, and Sanjay Seth, chief of staff and senior advisor for climate and equity at the Environmental Protection Agency. WBUR’s Barbara Moran will be moderating the conversation.
David Abel is a College of Communication professor of the practice of journalism. He is an award-winning reporter and an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. He has been a writer for many years at the Boston Globe, where for the past decade he has covered climate change and other environmental issues.
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