May 29, 2019 | Plumbing the Depths

Participants at one of GMRI’s C-Rise presentations explore an interactive coastal map. Photo courtesy of Gayle Bowness

 By Lisa Cavanaugh

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Anyone who has worked on Cape Cod’s waterfronts will have plenty of anecdotes about the creeping level of the sea.

Fishermen tell tales about storms that caused water to surge up and over piers and parking lots, swamping skiffs and making a mess of dock lines and gear. Scientists have compiled decades of data on increasing sea levels. Many communities in our region are working to build awareness and develop responsive solutions to what the impact of more inches of ocean — eventually more feet — will mean.

“Fishermen are a key component, since they are sometimes the first to notice the impact sea level rise has,” says Dr. Rob Thieler, Center Director for the US Geological Survey at Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. “Fish pier storm surge affects the fleet, but it also has a trickle-down impact. A non-viable dock in Chatham, for example, affects hundreds of community members, since Chatham is part of Cape Cod’s blue economy.

“Once you build comprehensive understanding of the problem then that understanding becomes actionable.”

Greg Berman, Coastal Processes Specialist for Woods Hole Sea Grant and Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, says that what towns can do is work on adaptation. These efforts “can be done on a local or individual level,” says Berman. “There are many tools in the toolbox, such as retrofits, new building codes, higher flood safety standards. The difficult part is where the money to pay for it all comes from.”

Berman realizes that it can be hard to change people’s minds.

“To get a lot of buy in, you need a lot of public outreach,” he says. Through both the Sea Grant program and County Extension, Berman and his colleagues share their funded research and offer technical assistance to town managers as well as teach workshops and present at conferences.

“We have worked with all the towns on the Cape to look at vulnerability … and to prioritize action,” he says. “It is encouraging that our state is providing money for adaptation, since it shows that Massachusetts understands the issue.”

“Rising sea levels and increased daily tidal inundation and flooding during coastal storms are a major concern and focus for the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management’s StormSmart Coasts program,” says Julia Knisel, CZM’s Coastal Shoreline & Floodplain Manager. CZM provides assistance with community planning, public workshops, and projects to reduce property damages from flooding and erosion and protect coastal resources, offering funding through the Coastal Resilience Grant Program to address higher water levels, property damage, and the loss of natural buffers.

“Cape communities have been successful with coastal resilience projects since the program launched in 2014,” says Knisel.

Other coastal states are also working to build community-centric responses to sea level rise. One program in Maine is being run by Gayle Bowness, the Science Education Program Manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI.) Her C-RISE project, which stands for Community Resilience Informed by Science and Experience, is entering its final year of a four-year timeframe.

“We had two years of development and an additional two years of community engagement,” says Bowness, a Nova Scotia native who has been managing education programs at GMRI for 14 years. “It is a different kind of initiative for us and it has been a lot of fun.”

The development process engaged a mix of people, professional and personal, with intertwined interests on the Maine coast. GMRI brought in state and federal experts as well as municipalities such as Portland and South Portland to aid in making decisions. “It was important to hear everyone’s perspective to help define what the education program would be,” says Bowness.

The result of 18 months of input and planning is a 90-minute experience that Bowness presents to coastal communities, designed toward learning and listening.

“A huge emphasis is on creating a space where people, many of whom have strong emotional connections to the coast, can share their experiences, concerns and viewpoints,” says Bowness. She gives the audience a chance to view projection maps, shares data about weather events, explains trends in sea level rise, and describes how places they love will be impacted. It is a mix of Power Point, large and small group discussions, and question-and-answer segments.

Bowness has already presented to 45 community meetings reaching nearly 1500 people. Expert panels discuss how other communities have responded across the nation and globe.

“We include city planners, harbormasters, architects, people from heritage and land trust organizations, with the intent to get everyone thinking about investing in change,” says Bowness. “We don’t want just a doom and gloom scenario, but rather a chance to envision not just a resilient coastal community but a thriving coastal community.”

She stresses that anyone on a working waterfront needs to be thinking about maintaining access.

“It is especially important for fishing communities,” she says. “Smaller storms will begin to have bigger impacts and will go from a nuisance to a real problem. We need to consider how we keep the engine of a waterfront working.”

“Cape Cod is struggling with same impacts of sea level rise as we are in Maine,”  adds Bowness. “What we are seeing now is greater than ever recorded. We have NOAA buoy system data from the 1880s, and tide gauges from 1912. So we can see the trends. We are going to see extremes.”

Bowness is encouraged by her interactions with coastal communities: “Everyone is ready for the conversation and curious to learn more. Getting people talking about it; that is first big hurdle to build community resilience.”

CZM has a number of resources and tools available, including a sea level rise and coastal flooding viewer (


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