SCARBOROUGH AND CAPE ELIZABETH (Sep 27, 2006): Imagine rebuilding Route 1 and businesses along it because sections of it were under water.
Imagine the Scarborough Fire Department’s engine house on Pine Point under water. Imagine the police and fire departments in South Portland under water, along with Mahoney Middle School and Brown Elementary School.
Imagine Higgins Beach, Scarborough Beach and Crescent Beach under water, and with them are the homes and business that line them.
It’s not necessarily fiction. Dramatic results from a study released this week by the Natural Resources Council of Maine suggest that, given the pace of global warming, much of coastal Maine could disappear in 50 to 100 years – and Scarborough could be among the hardest-hit areas. Because these areas include some of the state’s most important tourist destinations, the economic impact on Maine’s $3.5 billion tourism economy could be incalculable, the report said.
While some said the findings of the report were exaggerated, others called the picture painted in the report a “nightmare scenario.”
The council is a nonprofit, membership organization devoted to protecting, restoring and conserving Maine’s environment. According to Dylan Voorhees, the council’s project director, the study was released now while people still have summer visits to the coast fresh in their minds and might be more likely to start taking action against global warming.
“The No. 1 message is that this is preventable using methods we already know,” said Voorhees. “Contact the president and senators to let them know we take this seriously. When people start to take action in their own homes, they are more likely to take political action.”
The study looked at two scenarios: What would happen if the ocean level rose by 1 meter, or about 3 feet; and what would the coast look like if the entire Greenland ice sheet melted, raising the ocean 6 meters, or about 20 feet. The council developed its analysis with assistance from the geographic information systems department at Colby College and with input from faculty at University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.
The study lists the top 20 towns that would lose the most land, buildings and miles of road. Scarborough stands to lose the most in both scenarios – a 1-meter ocean level rise would mean about 1,500 acres would go under and about 6 miles of road. With a 6-meter rise, about 7,000 acres would be gone and about 26 miles of road, including a large portion of Route 1.
For South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, the outlook isn’t quite as bleak. With the ocean rising by 1 meter, South Portland would lose 173 acres and about 3 miles of roads, and with the 6-meter rise, 853 acres and 14 miles of road would flood.
Cape Elizabeth would lose about 125 acres and only a small portion of roadway with a 1-meter rise and about 1,500 acres and a little more than 2 miles with a 6-meter rise.
People who enjoy the beaches in Southern Maine agree that a 1-meter rise in sea levels would be catastrophic for the coast, though they don’t all agree that it would be a result of human intervention.
“I just don’t know,” said Brad Seavey, 43, of Buxton, while relaxing at Kettle Cove last Friday. “I heard it is more planetary,” he said.
Seavey said in the whole scale of geological time, he was not convinced humans were responsible for the melting of the polar ice caps. But he was not sure they weren’t, either.
“Al Gore was right,” said Regis Tremblay, 61, of Hill Crest Drive in Cape Elizabeth, referring to the documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” whose subject is global warming. Tremblay was relaxing in a lawn chair at Kettle Cove on Friday, watching the scenery with his dog, Deuce. He said he comes to the cove almost every day.
Tremblay pointed to houses and low-lying areas that would be swamped if the ocean rose.
“What is absolutely undeniable is the polar circle is shrinking fast,” said Tremblay. There are pictures of it shrinking, he added.
At Higgins Beach in Scarborough, surfers Eric Jorgensen and Dave Ferrier fear losing the beach.
“The nightmare scenario would be the beaches being covered,” said Jorgensen, who has been surfing for the last four years after retiring his skateboard. He said that, though surfers make jokes about global warming making the cold Maine water easier to bear, it’s not something he ever wants to see happen.
Ferrier often makes a trip from Vermont to surf on the Maine coast.
“I’ve always been attracted to the beach,” said Ferrier. “The coast in general wouldn’t be the same.”
Ocean levels have risen a fraction of a millimeter every year over the last 5,000 years, according to modern research, said Joseph Kelley, professor of marine geology at the University of Maine. However, since the installation of a buoy in 1912 in Casco Bay to measure tides, the results have shown an increase. Kelley said since 1930, the ocean has been rising about 2 to 3 millimeters a year.
As far as rising 3 feet, Kelley was skeptical. “It seems like an awfully big number,” he said. “We are not yet seeing data to support those numbers.”
“We don’t have to worry about the 20-foot rise right now, we have enough to worry about with a 2-foot rise,” said Steve Dickson, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey.
According to Dickson, Maine already has policy in place that take into account an ocean rise. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection bases permits for buildings close to the ocean on assumption of a 2-foot rise.
“I don’t think there’s another forward-thinking policy in place like Maine’s,” said Dickson.
The Maine Geological Survey has done studies like the Natural Resources Council’s, said Dickson, and though he agrees with the council’s findings, he said it did not take into account erosion and storm damage.
Voorhees acknowledged that the study is conservative in that it did not account for these factors.
Jane Eberle, House District 123 representative, which includes part of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, sits on board for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a position she has held for seven years.
“I think something we have to ask ourselves is, are we crying wolf,” she said.
Eberle argued, however, that the science is irrefutable. “We have been watching the data for a long time,” she said.
Eberle stressed that people need to take action to prevent a global catastrophe that would hit Maine in a personal way. “If we do nothing, it continues on a rapid decline. If we do something, we can affect it,” she said.