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Symposium looks at coastal effects of climate change

Groton - Adapting to rising sea levels, more frequent and intense rainstorms, warmer temperatures and other effects of climate change would be costly, but inaction would be costlier.

That was the point made by the panelists for "Staying Dry and Paying for It," a symposium Tuesday at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut on the costs of coastal living in a changing climate.

"It's pretty hard to armor the coast" against sea levels rising an average of 2.5 mm per year, said panelist E. Zell Steever, chairman of Groton's Task Force on Climate Change. "But you can do things about development and planning and infrastructure."

Steever held up three types of footwear: galoshes, knee-high rain boots and thigh-high waders. Increasingly, climate scientists are projecting effects somewhere between the medium- and high-boot range by the end of this century as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to build up in the earth's atmosphere.

Speakers gave examples from the March 30 floods to emphasize that many areas in the region are vulnerable.

Moderator W. Frank Bohlen, marine sciences professor at Avery Point, opened the discussion with data from a Thames River tide gauge showing an annual rise of 2.5 mm.

"That may not sound like an awful lot, but it's persistent," he said. "A relatively small creep can produce relatively significant cuts on a beach."

George Bradner, director of the property and casualty branch of the state Department of Insurance, noted that at 63 percent, Connecticut has one of the highest percentages in the nation of people who live within 25 miles of the coast, the area most vulnerable to damage during a hurricane. If a hurricane of the same magnitude as the one that struck in 1938 hit the state today, it would cause millions more in damage because the coastal population is larger, he said.

"Insurance companies are looking at this data," he said, referring to the climate change effects recorded to date and the projections. "They are deciding how they price for that exposure."

He noted that since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, homeowners have seen insurance costs rise 20 percent to 100 percent. He directed audience members to the Institute for Home Safety's Web site, ibhs.org, for help in preparing their homes for hurricanes and other disasters, and urged homeowners to take an inventory of all their possessions, either by video or photo, and store the information in a secure location outside the house.

Since there is already evidence that the climate is warming and stressing sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs, communities should begin to make infrastructure upgrades now, said Penny Vlahos, assistant professor of marine sciences at Avery Point. Locally, larger drainage basins that can handle more stormwater are one example of the kinds of actions needed, she said.

On a global scale, issues such as population growth must also be considered for life on Earth to be sustainable long term, she said. She noted that the United Nations is taking up the question, and has determined that the current population of 6.8 billion is on a trajectory to continue rising but should not be allowed to go higher than 7.8 to 9 billion.

Although this can raise very culturally sensitive issues, history has shown that as nations become better educated and raise their standard of living, population growth slows, she noted.

Todd Fake, research associate in Avery Point's marine sciences department, pinpointed local areas that would be flooded during a Category 3 or 4 hurricane. Knowing which areas are most at risk can help in planning for future development to go elsewhere and reducing the risk in vulnerable areas, he said.

Bohlen concluded by noting that, ultimately, elected leaders and society will have to decide what actions to take in response.

"The sociopolitical element is missing," he said. "The question of who pays for it leads to discussions about property values, taxes and where and how do we build houses."

j.benson@theday.com

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