Sea Level Rise Conference Convenes at BU

Sea Level

A map of what the City would look like with 7.5 feet of sea level rise.


Venice is building storm surge protection. Helsinki is planning on inviting water in. Boston could do both. As seas rise (10” in Boston in the last century), cities are planning how to prepare for the impacts of climate change, and more specifically, sea level rise.

More than 200 attendees and speakers from around the world came together at the Metcalf Trustee Center for BU’s first conference on Sea Level Rise and the Future of Coastal Cities. Co-hosted by the Initiative on Cities and the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, the conference sought to examine how cities are planning for and adapting to rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and changing coastlines. The conference was the brainchild of the late former Mayor and BU faculty member Thomas Menino who personally invited many of the participants and speakers to join in a discussion, which he felt was of deep importance to our city and other cities around the world.

Why is this such an important topic and why now? Think about this. At mid-century—when current BU students will be in the prime of their careers—we may see 30% of Boston flooded through a combination of rising seas, storm surge and high tides. By the end of the century, we may see the same twice a day during high tide.

Pardee Center Director, Anthony Janetos, kicked off the conference with a review of the latest climate science and emphasized that climate change, and subsequently sea level rise consequences are already being felt in many parts of the world.

Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution explained the dynamics of sea level rise including three roughly equal contributing factors: 1) warmer ocean water expansion, 2) melting glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica, and 3) melting glaciers around the rest of the world. He also noted, warmer water as it evaporates into the atmosphere, strengthens the water cycle thereby driving more intense and slower-moving tropical storms. Ocean warming also happens more intensely at the coastline, which has significant impacts on sea life that many communities rely on not just for food but also for a marine-based economy.

Doney went on to note a shift of marine species northward along the Atlantic coastline. Lobster, for example have migrated from Massachusetts’ coastal waters to the Gulf of Maine where it is now no longer even cold enough for many species to thrive. This means your lobster could be quite a bit more expensive in the near future. Officials in coastal communities are keenly aware of the impacts of climate change and sea level rise on their constituents’ livelihoods.

A mayors roundtable convened the night before the conference with officials from Boston, Elizabeth, NJ and Melbourne, Australia discussing what their cities are already doing to address sea level rise and living with water. How can we learn from other cities? The City of Melbourne has replaced much of its pipe and culvert infrastructure with permeable green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff. At the same time they installed localized stormwater harvesting systems in and around city parks to further mitigate flooding and provide the irrigation water for the parks.

Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space, Brian Swett, described the City’s proactive approach to prepare for the inevitable and make the City safer for its residents. He described how the City is looking at routes and methods to reach people in the event of an emergency. The City has installed solar-powered fuel pumping stations for emergency vehicles and solar-powered traffic signals along evacuation routes.

Swett also discussed a climate preparedness checklist for new buildings in Boston that includes strategies such as raising electrical equipment typically located in basements to upper floors when it is time to replace that equipment.  Most significantly, Swett announced Mayor Walsh will be hosting a mayors’ summit this spring, which will bring together mayors & city officials from around the Greater Boston region to work together on climate preparedness, noting water does not respect the boundaries between cities.

It’s not just local government that is concerned. Businesses are implementing resilient design strategies to address encroaching water. Bryan Koop, Senior Vice President and Boston Region Manager at Boston Properties says, “Resilience is really about life safety.” Boston Properties is by far one of the leaders in resilient and sustainable development. The real estate firm recently installed a technologically advanced version of a sandbag system surrounding its Atlantic Wharf building. The new system, called Aquafence, will be deployed prior to a storm by facility staff in a very short amount of time, protecting that building in the event of high storm surge.

Emerging innovations like the Aquafence are in increasing demand for coastal businesses and communities. While many politicians choose disbelief or are paralyzed to inaction, coastal cities around the world are feeling the effects of sea level rise already and local officials are developing the policies and strategies to move forward in a sustainable way. Strategies in these coastal communities that are already innovating will eventually drive federal preparedness policy in the future as more and more communities demand action.

When President Robert Brown opened the conference he said, “Water is in our past” as he described the filled tidal marshes much of Boston University sits on today. Then he noted, “Our future has plenty of water in it.”

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