Nobel Prize winner and professor of Geosciences and International Affairs Dr. Michael Oppenheimer attended the Sea Level Rise Committee’s meeting on Tuesday as a special guest advisor.
As a summer resident, Oppenheimer spends most of his summers on Block Island and he will be speaking at the Block Island Utility District’s Annual Meeting on August 27, and be the featured speaker at the Block Island Maritime Institute’s Tuesday Night Talk on August 9.
SLR Committee Vice Chair Clair Stover introduced Oppenheimer, saying he was “here to give us some feedback.”
Committee member Sven Risom added: “The goal of this is advising the Sea Level Rise Committee,” as opposed to what Oppenheimer would talk about at BIMI. (See page 12.)
Oppenheimer started by briefing the committee on new developments. “Lots of things have changed in the climate change community,” he said, going on to detail some of the bills recently going through the United States Congress and what they would or would not do to help alleviate climate change, with the infrastructure bill having the most potential for a positive impact.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but Oppenheimer said that “people should hesitate to do really big projects.” Why?
“Projections change a lot and they change continually,” as far as sea level rise. He said NOAA was putting out a new report, the last one having been done in 2015. Big projects also cost a lot of money he said, and sometimes are not worth the effort. “In some places, places will need to be abandoned. The government couldn’t print enough money,” to actually affect a change in some geographical areas.
Oppenheimer also said the focus should be on sea level rise projections for 2050, not 2100. “In 2050, we know sea level rise is going to be one to two feet.” The year 2100 is far less predictable though, as the “cone of uncertainty” spreads out over time.
Addressing the committee’s list of priority goals, which include Corn Neck Road, both north and south of Beach Avenue, Bridgegate Square, Beach Avenue, Ocean Avenue and marsh migration,
Oppenheimer said he had “a quarrel with it.” Big projects, he said can take 30 years to complete and required the political will and lots of money. Additionally, as an advisory committee, he said, “the decision isn’t in your hands.”
What was better he said was to be ready. One example he gave was in New York City where they are doing things with money from Hurricane Sandy, which occurred in 2012. Without the hurricane, there would probably not have been either the money nor the political will to get important projects done. “The government opens the spigot,” he said when there is a natural disaster. “You’ve got to be ready. When the window opens, you better be there.”
It was a lesson learned on Block Island when Corn Neck Road was washed out by Sandy. While people would have preferred rebuilding the road differently, there was no plan in place and the road was rebuilt largely as it was before the storm.
When it came time for questions, SLR Committee member Socha Cohen went first. She started by saying that when she first met Oppenheimer, she asked him what he would do as a priority on Block Island. “And you said ‘prepare for a category three hurricane.’ Would you change that?”
“No,” responded Oppenheimer, adding that the Hurricane of ‘38 was a category three, and although rare, category three storms may be increasing in frequency. “But, yeah, prepare for a big storm.”
“You talk about things that could be done now,” said committee member Nigel Grindley. “Could you be more specific?”
Oppenheimer stressed that he was not an engineer, but things like storm-water run-off, potential breaches from storm surge and protection of fresh water, could be addressed. “Things you’re doing now.”
He also suggested that as the town took on asset replacement and major repair projects that they “keep sea level rise in mind.” The sewer outflow pipe was one example he gave.
Mary Anderson, a member of the Planning Board, asked “At what point should we start thinking about sea level rise and our aquifer?”
“Again, I’m not an engineer,” said Oppenheimer. He did note that the last comprehensive water study had been done two to three decades ago. As the sea level rises though, he said salinity would be closer to the perimeter of the island.
(Another comprehensive study of the water resources on Block Island is currently underway.)
When asked if increased water usage on the island, particularly with the increase in swimming pools, make the salinity get worse, Oppenheimer said “It could be a problem,” especially if the aquifer weren’t getting recharged with rain water.
Next was a presentation by Ned Phillips on his work with dune restoration post-Sandy on “the Neck,” just at, and to the north of Scotch Beach where the dunes were severely damaged. Phillips, sometimes in a town capacity as a member of the Conservation Commission, and sometimes as a contractor, utilized snow fencing to rebuild dunes in places, with impressive results after almost 10 years.
“So that’s an example of something that won’t save the day 50 years from now, but is doable,” said Oppenheimer.
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