Powerful Winter Storm Shows Damage High Tides With Sea Level Rise Can Do

Two nor’easters fueled record tides in Boston in recent weeks, causing coastal flooding. Advocates warn infrastructure isn't being built to weather climate change.

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Powerful waves washed over the tops of houses in Scituate, Massachusetts, and flooded the streets. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Waves from a winter storm in early March washed over houses in Scituate, Massachusetts, and flooded the streets. The nor'easter hit as tides were already high because of the nearly full moon. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

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With two powerful storms generating record high tides that inundated parts of the Atlantic Coast just weeks apart—and a third nor’easter on its way—environmental advocates are urging greater efforts to address climate change and adapt cities to sea level rise.

The governors of Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Virginia declared states of emergency as high tides and hurricane force winds ravaged the Eastern Seaboard last week raising concerns about coastal infrastructure damage and beach erosion as far south as North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

On Friday, Boston experienced its third-highest high tide since record keeping began in 1928, with waters just inches below the record of 15.16 feet set on Jan. 4, during the city’s last major winter storm.

The National Guard rescued more than 100 people from rising tides in nearby Quincy. Waves lashed three-story homes in Scituate, Massachusetts, and high tides washed over a bridge near Portland, Maine.

Hundreds of thousands of homes across the Mid-Atlantic and New England remained without power on Monday, and much of Long Island continued to experience coastal flooding as the region braced for another powerful storm forecast for Wednesday.

“It’s given the region a very stark picture of what climate change looks like and a reminder of the urgency of changing, not just our energy platform, but also our building and development practices,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental advocacy group.

“There is roughly $6 billion of construction planned or occurring in Boston’s Seaport District, known as the ‘innovation district’, but in fact it’s the ‘inundation district,’ and very little of that construction is designed to contend with climate conditions that are already here let alone those that lie in the near future,” Campbell said.

A man walked along Scituate's flooded Front Street as a nor'easter slammed the New England and Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy snow, rain, strong winds and coastal flooding. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images
A man walked along Scituate’s flooded Front Street as a nor’easter slammed the New England and Mid-Atlantic coast with heavy snow, rain, strong winds and flooding. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

As the planet warms, scientists say cities will need to play an increasingly active role in both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to a changing climate.

“Conventional urban planning approaches and capacity-building strategies to tackle increasing vulnerability to extreme events and growing demands for a transition to a low-carbon economy are proving inadequate,” researchers wrote in a policy paper published Feb. 27 in the journal Nature Climate Change. “These efforts must now shift to hyper-speed.”

One possible solution now being considered to protect Bostonwhere the city’s latest outlook says sea level rose about 9 inches during the last century and could rise 1.5 feet in the first half of this centuryis the construction of a massive barrier across Boston harbor with gates that close to protect the region from storm surges. The project would likely cost billions of dollars to complete, money that Campbell said could be better spent on other solutions.

“There isn’t a wall that is going to be effective to protect all of the New England coastal areas that are at risk,” he said. “We are going to have much more cost-effective solutions by improvements of design, by incorporating the need for sacrificial and buffer areas into design, and by updating standards for storm water management and runoff.”

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