By Derek Newberry, Advocacy Fellow
What would you do if you knew 90,000+ Bostonians and nearly $80 billion in real estate and capital was threatened by sea level rise? Would you scoff at the possibility? Tell everyone to close up shop and run? Avoid investment in beachfront property? Or maybe, build a wall and adapt?
Well, that last one is just what the city of Boston is currently considering. In the December 2016 Climate Ready Boston Final Report, the city found that even with major reductions in emissions the chances of at least 21 inches of sea level rise is nearly certain by 2050 and 36 inches is highly likely by the end of the century. The study also found that there remains a 15% chance of 7.4 feet of sea level rise by 2070 if emissions were to stay at exactly today’s levels. Moreover, a January NOAA Technical Report increased the administration’s previous worst-case sea level rise scenario from 6.6 feet to 8.2 feet: not an encouraging update for a city that rests just 1 foot above mean sea level.
These graphs show the annual monetary losses for different scenarios and sectors contributing to the losses in the 36-inch scenario: from the Climate Ready Boston Final Report.
All scenarios would lead to more frequent flooding, more severe floods, and massive losses of land and capital. Estimated losses from the 36-inch scenario would amount to $1.4 billion in annual losses due to interruptions in business activities, destruction of infrastructure and private capital, costs of human relocation, losses in productivity, and much more. One can only imagine the costs of worst case scenarios.
These costs have spurred investment in feasibility studies for constructing a 4 mile, 20-foot tall sea wall from Winthrop to the Hull Peninsula. Other ideas include building a wall around Boston and Logan Airport, covering from Winthrop to Quincy, or building a shorter system of dikes between Deer Island and Telegraph Hill. These would be designed with hydraulic gates that could be closed during high tides and large storms and opened to permit shipping and trade vessels. The image here from the Boston Climate Report show where some of the walls might be located.
However, such a structure would cost billions and have severe ecological and environmental impacts throughout the harbor from species loss to water pollution and changing currents. It also begs the question, why are we willing to consider such a large adaptive measure without also discussing the issue at hand? If we spend billions to build a wall, we should also invest billions in renewable energies and net zero buildings. While the threat of sea level rise to the city and surrounding areas will most likely outweigh the the costs, preventative measures and sustainable, low carbon policies could greatly enhance the success of this project and reduce its ultimate cost.
It goes without saying that anthropogenic climate change has established a hazardous and costly future for Boston, the state, and coastal civilization in general. While the immediate options might seem clear, prepare and adapt to the coming changes or suffer the consequences, we must take a step back from the issue and understand how we got here and how to address the emission issues while adapting to the inevitable consequences. Maybe your decision, and the city's, should be to create a wall covered in wind turbines? Regardless, combining adaptation and mitigation strategies will lead to the most sustainable and prosperous future.
If you are concerned over the future of Boston and its plans to combat climate change please read our climate adaptation and management page, go through the Climate Ready Boston Final Report, read this Boston Globe article, and contact your representative here.
*Thumbnail, banner, and image are from the Climate Ready Boston Final Report