A new study examining the effects of potential sea level rises on the Maine coast has singled out Scarborough as an especially vulnerable region. The study, a product of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), estimates that if sea levels rise three feet, as many climate scientists are predicting, 1,531 acres of the town would be submerged and the Scarborough Marsh would be devastated.
“There is a slow moving Katrina headed for Maine’s coast and the question is whether we will take action or just wait,” said NRCM Clean Energy Director Dylan Voorhees at a press conference.
With the help of Colby College’s geographic information systems department and faculty of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, NRCM singled out 20 communities on the Maine coast that could lose the highest percentage of their land to sea level change and produced maps and statistics showing the potential impact.
Steve Seabury, a real estate broker who lives in Higgins Beach, said there is a clear need to begin preparing for rising sea levels.
“The population is confused,” Seabury said, noting that the issue has become politicized. “But when it comes in on your kitchen floor, you’re going to notice it.”
Seabury said the properties that are easiest for him to sell are the shorefront ones that he expects may soon be underwater. He said he regularly discusses with his clients the restrictions and risks of building in such areas.
University of Maine professor Gordon Hamilton, who studies glaciers in Greenland, said it is indisputable there will be some degree of sea level rise in the near future.
“It’s real,” he said. “There’s no credible dispute about it in the scientific community… there’s only debate about the magnitude of change.”
The NCRM study examined two possible scenarios of sea level rise – a three-foot rise and a 20-foot rise. Hamilton said it is widely accepted among climate scientist that the three-foot increase could occur within the next generation. Many scientists believe that global warming and the melting of ice in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Circle will actually cause a 20-foot increase.
While under a three-foot rise Scarborough would lose five percent of its current land base, under a twenty-foot rise the town would lose 22 percent, including 42 kilometers of roads and 6,817 acres.
Voorhees emphasized that the NRCM estimates were conservative and did not take into account storm surge and erosion, which would likely increase the quantity of land affected.
The impact of sea level rise, Voorhees said, would be severe for both the economy and the ecology of Maine. He said the changes could cause billions of dollars in damage and harm the state’s $3.5 billion tourist industry.
“Maine tourism is destination based and the destinations are at risk,” he said.
Jeannette Lovitch, a bird biologist who owns the Wild Bird Center in Yarmouth, said the Scarborough Marsh would be one of the most significant losses to sea level rises. She said there are numerous species that rely on the marsh for habitat that would be severely endangered by its loss. In particular, she mentioned the sharp-tailed sparrow, a globally rare bird that breeds in southern Maine’s marshes.
“They would be wiped out as breeders in Maine and the east coast,” she said.
Lovitch said coastlands ecosystems are able to adapt to change, but that rising sea levels would occur too fast for this process.
“The pace of change will be exponentially faster than the adaptation rate of any natural system,” she said.
Other locations singled out by the NRDC study included Portland, Kennebunkport, Bath, Reid State Park, Penobscot Bay and the Mount Desert Island region. Under the twenty-foot sea level rise scenario, Bath Iron Works, 1,000 acres of downtown Portland, the Bush compound on Walker’s Point and portions of I-295 would all be submerged.
Hamilton said in the 1990s, the sea level began rising in excess of three millimeters a year – more rapidly than before. He said that this rate is expected to increase greatly during the next generation for multiple reasons. Factors include expansion of the ocean due to its increasing warmth, the pumping of groundwater from aquifers into the ocean, the melting of mountain glaciers and the melting of the polar ice caps.
“We know that sea levels are already rising, that it is accelerating,” said Voorhees. “We need widespread action…I think it would be irresponsible for our leaders to take a gamble.”