Ten years post-Sandy, next big storm is ‘predictably unpredictable’
Groton ― The direct impact of climate change came ashore ten years ago with Superstorm Sandy, presaging the kind of recurring destruction that state environmental experts say can’t be reversed, only mitigated.
Jim O'Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) and a marine sciences professor at the University of Connecticut, said storms will remain more impactful going forward due to the rise in sea level.
The higher the sea level, the more flooding there will be. “And it’s pretty predictable,” he told attendees at the CIRCA conference on progress made in the ten years since Sandy hit.
With oceans absorbing more heat because of energy from the sun trapped by greenhouse gases, sea temperatures and the sea level are on the rise.
UCONN President Radenka Maric in a video message recalled the damage across the state from Sandy: Five deaths, hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and power knocked out for more than 650,000 customers.
“Ten years ago, the reality of the climate change in Connecticut became impossible to ignore any longer,” she said.
According to O’Donnell, the goal now must be to ensure the damage doesn’t get as bad as some experts are predicting.
A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released earlier this year predicted a rise of 10-12 inches by 2050. CIRCA guidance recommends communities plan for a rise of 20 feet in the same timeframe.
“Hopefully it’ll be less than that by 2050, but it’s unlikely it’s going to be less than that by 2100,” he said.
O’Donnell cited models predicting a rise of more than three feet by 2100. That kind of damage would devastate “all coastal communities, all the time.” He described the impact as unimaginable.
“Superstorm Sandy in Connecticut: Progress & Challenges After Ten Years,” was held Friday morning at the Branford House on UCONN’s Avery Point campus. Presenters included members of state agencies in charge of energy, the environment and housing. There were academics, local leaders and one sitting senator making a campaign-season jaunt through eastern Connecticut.
US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, arrived from an Offshore Wind Update and Mini Expo at the Mystic Marriott. He touted New London’s State Pier, which is a staging site for the offshore wind industry, as an example of Connecticut taking the lead on green technology.
“Of course, that kind of resilience is at the heart of what we need,” he said.
Blumenthal cited a law enacted this summer to address inflation through climate change and healthcare initiatives. It earmarked $375 billion for clean energy incentives in areas like wind and solar power, as well as $50 billion in resilience investments to protect communities against extreme weather.
“I can tell you that the efforts against climate change that Congress passed in August were a minor political miracle, maybe a major one,” he said.
The vote in the Senate was a tie-breaker decided by Vice President Kamala Harris.
“That’s how close we are in this nation in terms of the political will to do what we must,” he said.
State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Commissioner Katie Dykes emphasized the importance of collaboration, research and data to educate people about climate change.
CIRCA was established in Sandy’s wake as a partnership between UCONN and the DEEP to help coastal communities better adapt to climate changes and make infrastructure more resilient.
Dykes said the most productive conversations with local leaders happen when there is specific information about how the rise in sea level and the resulting flooding is going to affect that particular city or town – and what can be done about it.
She described CIRCA’s data as “actionable” information in preparation “for that next predictably unpredictable storm event.”
In the images below, pull the interactive handle left and right to see current flooding conditions compared to the amount of land that could be underwater in 2050 based on models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Visit the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer to see other parts of southeastern Connecticut.
Downtown New London
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the acronym for the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation.