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Sink or swim: Experts bracing for climate change

Imagine floodwater and high tides regularly inundating downtown Mystic.

Consider the devastation from Stonington to Old Saybrook if a Hurricane of 1938 battered the shoreline every few years, instead of once in a lifetime. What if the torrential rainstorm of 2010, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the remnants of Hurricane Ida a couple weeks ago became the norm?

“This isn’t hypothetical,” Frank Bohlen, a marine sciences professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton, warned in a recent interview. “We’re experiencing the effects of climate change right now.”

Bohlen is a member of Groton’s Resiliency and Sustainability Task Force, one of the region’s first municipal agencies to study the impact of climate change and what must be done to protect critical infrastructure.

While other parts of the country are parched by draught and battling wildfires, southeastern Connecticut, along with the rest of the state’s coast, faces a different threat: rising sea level.

Scientists predict Long Island Sound will be 20 inches higher by the year 2050.

“And that’s a best-case scenario,” said James O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation.

O’Donnell, whose statewide research is based at Avery Point, said data suggests that catastrophic coastal storms caused by warmer oceans are occurring four or five times more frequently.

He added that while many Connecticut businesses recognize that improving energy efficiency pays long-term dividends and have reduced their carbon footprints to mitigate the effects of global warming, municipalities have been slower to respond.

“Most towns are way behind,” he said.

One local exception is Groton, where the Town Council passed a resolution last March requiring that climate change, resiliency, and sustainability become a central management principle for all government actions.

The town also is preparing to hire a fulltime climate resilience program manager, believed to be the first such position in the region. Among other responsibilities, that person will seek grants for assorted projects, in anticipation of funds made available by the recently approved, $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

Zell Steever, chair of the task force that began by meeting with every town department head, said he is encouraged by Groton’s support.

While such recommendations as switching to LED lighting are relatively easy to implement, others present significant challenges.

Consider the problem of low-lying roads that flood occasionally now but are at risk of sinking underwater in the future. When task force members looked into ways to increase the height of Groton Long Pond Road when rebuilding a bridge over Palmer Cove near Esker Point Beach in Noank, they learned that elevating the road would impinge on several nearby property owners, thereby dramatically increasing construction and land-acquisition costs.

Yet without a raised road, storm surges and hurricane flooding one day could cut off the only evacuation route for residents of Groton Long Point and Mumford Cove.

This scenario could play out in other parts of town.

A draft report by Bohlen and task force member Maggie Jones identifies seven areas in Groton that are vulnerable to future storm surges: Jupiter Point, Groton Long Point, Noble Avenue/Marsh Road in Noank, Front Street in Noank, Willow Point-Cedar Road in Mystic, downtown Mystic and portions of River Road in Mystic.

Wide-ranging recommendations have been made by task force members, who all have impressive credentials:

Jones is director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic; Sarah E. Kelly is a retired vice president in pharmaceutical sciences at Pfizer; Steever, former director of water and related resources for DEEP, and former chair of the Groton Conservation Commission, has worked for the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers; Jessie Stratton, a former state representative, served 10 years as House chair of the Environment Committee and worked for five years as policy director for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; Dr. Victor Villagra is associate director of UConn’s Health Disparities Institute; Howard “Mickey” Weiss, a senior marine scientist, founded and served 30 years as director of Project Oceanology, where he now conducts research.

Among their suggestions: Improve mass transit; encourage greater use of solar panels, heat pumps and other systems that minimize reliance on fossil fuels; establish building codes that favor energy efficiency; phase in replacement of the town’s gas-powered cars, trucks and schoolbuses with electric vehicles; and offer tax incentives for residents who install green energy systems.

During an interview with several task force members, Stratton pointed out the enormous economic toll more climate change-driven storms could have on the economy.

“Sixty-four percent of the state’s insurable property is within a mile of the coast,” she noted.

The group also has focused on climate change’s impact on human health.

“The rapid pace of climate change leading to sea level rise, atmospheric ozone depletion, extreme temperature days, hurricanes, floods and damage to critical infrastructure like power and water supply pose a substantial threat to the health and safety to Town of Groton residents,” warns a report by Villagra and Kelly.

They urge implementing an education campaign and regular training drills to improve response to disease outbreaks, water contamination and other public health emergencies.

Task force members aren’t just concerned about climate change’s impact on humans.

Weiss, of Project Oceanology, said warmer temperatures are causing oceans to become more acidic and dissolve shells.

Rising sea level also has decimated the saltmarsh sparrow, once a common shoreline bird now threatened with extinction because higher tides and storm surges have been flooding their nests.

Their decline is most evident at the Barn Island State Wildlife Management Area in Stonington, where Jones and fellow birder Owen Ehrlich recently examined the extent of habitat loss.

“The marsh is creeping landward, and one can see tidal marsh vegetation moving into the uplands,” Jones said.

Scott Warren, a retired botany professor at Connecticut College in New London who has spent decades studying marsh plants, said rising sea levels are turning salt hay meadows and marshes into mud flats or open water.

“As you lose marshes, you lose the services that marshes provide,” he said, noting that they serve as natural filters to improve water quality and also provide habitat for many marine species.

The big questions: Will people be willing to burn less fuel, as well as pay for infrastructure improvements and green-energy initiatives? Are they finally ready to acknowledge that climate change is a real phenomenon?

Weiss, of Project Oceanology, fretted that we’re now living in “an anti-science, anti-fact environment.”

He and others worried that the same people who refuse to get vaccinated against COVID or wear face masks will resist climate-change recommendations.

But, as Villagra of the Health Disparities Institute observed, nature inevitably will prevail.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

Kelly added, “The time is now to take this seriously and make some changes. If the best time to take action was yesterday, the second best is today.”





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