Saturday, October 27, 2018

They Know Seas Are Rising, but They’re Not Abandoning Their Beloved Cape Cod

Lifelong residents are building higher with each flood.  But while they contend with climate change, some say they aren’t sure what to believe about the cause.

Erosion and a changing landscape are givens on Cape Cod. Above, storm surge ate away at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham in February 2013. (Credit: Globe File Photo) Click to Enlarge.
Red Blood Among the Blues
Although Massachusetts is a solidly blue state as a whole, it is pockmarked with red regions, including chunks of the Cape.  At election time, lawns along scenic Cape Cod byways sprout signs supporting deeply conservative candidates who make nary a mention of climate change in their campaigns.  Before the September primaries, signs plaster every intersection in support of the re-election of Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty Jr. —a strong Donald Trump supporter who served time in federal prison for threatening to kill both President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Matt Teague is vastly more moderate than this—though he comes from conservative stock.  His father, Edward B. Teague III, represented Barnstable in the state legislature for eight years in the 1990s, eventually rising to House Republican leader, and spent some time as a conservative talk radio host.  Matt was a lifelong Republican himself—until about 10 years ago.  Then, exasperated by how hyper-partisan American politics had become, he "walked away from all of it," as he puts it.  But not all of it, exactly; he voted for Donald Trump in 2016.  "I got to make a living, and I don't like handing my money out to other people," he says by way of explanation.
Managed Retreat from the Shore?  Not Here.
Sea level has been rising since the end of the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, when Cape Cod was formed as the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated.  But the pace of sea level rise in the last century far exceeds the previous incremental increase that took place over eons.  As land ice melts at the poles and warm ocean waters expand, sea level is rising at an accelerated rate along the Mid-Atlantic coast, from Cape Hatteras to north of Boston.  At the same time, in a kind of double whammy, the land is sinking from natural geological processes.  If greenhouse gas emissions stay at their current levels, New England could experience seas that are nearly 7 feet higher than they are today by the end of the century, according to state documents.

Residents on Blish Point are concerned about adaptation.  A citizen group there helped secure $1.3 million in state funding for the area, money they hope will go in part toward restoring the marsh so it can better absorb flood impacts.

Homeowners can easily dismiss the grave risks of the nearby Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, one of the country's worst-rated nuclear plants, which sits directly on the edge of Cape Cod Bay.  It's harder for them to ignore the tenuous future (and value) of their Cape homes when storm damage from sea level rise increases.  A report released this year by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that nearly 90,000 Massachusetts homes, valued today at $63 billion, could be at risk by the end of the century—not just during storms but chronically, dozens of times each year.  This past summer, low-lying areas were inundated during new- and full-moon tides, leading to the strange situation of having flood advisories when there was no rain.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, more than half of the homes in Blish Point are at risk of going the way of Matt's cottage, needing to be raised or risk ruin.

Finding Middle Ground
In some parts of the country facing this scenario, communities are opting for "managed retreat," in which homeowners in vulnerable neighborhoods allow themselves to be bought out all at once by city and state governments, instead of having the government bail them out repeatedly.  But seaside properties maintain their special allure on old Cape Cod, which has a flat sandy seascape with an unavoidably low-lying geography—and Barnstable's Blish Point is not entertaining such a radical idea as managed retreat.  Although the state recently passed legislation allocating $2.4 billion toward climate change adaptation and other environmental protections across Massachusetts, of which the Blish Point neighborhood will receive $1.3 million, buyouts are not a priority.

Instead, in the wake of the floods last winter, it wasn't just Matt Teague, but many Blish Point homeowners who were wrestling with hard decisions as they asked the question:  "What are we doing here?" Some, like the Teagues, made plans to demolish and rebuild.  Some had had enough, and a flurry of "For Sale" signs appeared by the time the summer tourists arrived.  Some formed a citizen group that was partly responsible for getting that $1.3 million in state funding, which they hope will go toward restoring the marsh so it can better absorb flood impacts, and ensuring safe exit routes when it can't.  Meanwhile, the day after the wicked January 4 storm, the neighborhood children ice skated with delight on the flood waters that had frozen, glasslike, in the front yard of Matt Teague's neighbor—while the same ice seized the interior contents of the houses and transformed them into wreckage.
The Ocean Creeps In
Follow the course of the shifting sands from Jack's office at Millway Marina and Barnstable Harbor and you'll wash ashore in Dennis, another Cape Cod town which, under the new FEMA flood maps, saw the number of homes at risk nearly triple.  There you'll find Dan Fortier, a town planner who's not being quiet as he tries to turn adaptive strategies into reality.  He gets some of his guidance from documents such as the state's climate change adaptation report, which recommends dozens of specific strategies to face the changes ahead.  Some read like a Hippocratic oath of shorelines, directing a "No Adverse Impact" approach to managing coastal lands, while others promote using future climate change projections instead of historical data to estimate sea level rise and flood zones.  But when we spoke, Dan kept returning to the economic risk for a place whose "export industry is summer."

With one-third of the residential properties in town being in a flood zone, "the impacts of the next storm are always on my mind," says Dan, who's worked with the town for 18 years.  "If we lost one-third of our property value, it would be disastrous ... the death of our economy."  That's the bind coastal towns find themselves in.  They want to keep their citizens safe, but they depend on the property taxes of the most vulnerable of properties, which also happen to be the most valuable.  At least for now.

Dan doesn't question the impact of climate change on the Cape.  "Just in the last two decades, we have a continual creeping in of the ocean," he tells me.  "The ocean doesn't recede the way it used to.  Water is just there more and more because of sea level rise."
'"The fact that there's enough science out there to provide some predictability for that and to provide for some policy—that makes sense," Matt says returning to the hope for smart policy based on solid science.  "I think that's as good as you're going to get."

Read more at They Know Seas Are Rising, but They’re Not Abandoning Their Beloved Cape Cod

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