January 28, 2021

Maine coastal erosion imperils property> National report cites rapid rise in sea level

The ocean is encroaching on the state of Maine at a much faster rate than at any time in the past few thousand years.

With the level of the ocean rising at a rate of 1 foot per century, coastal bluffs and cliffs are eroding, jeopardizing houses and waterfront property.

“It’s already pretty bad as it is,” said Joe Kelley, a professor of geology at the University of Maine who specializes in coastal erosion. He said erosion already has taken its toll on cliffs, beaches and salt marshes, but that the situation could get much worse if the ocean continues to rise as quickly as it has over the past century.

For many centuries several of Maine’s beaches, such as Popham and Old Orchard were actually growing. The fact that they are suddenly shrinking indicates that the current rapid rise in sea level is not part of a natural pattern but is an unusual situation that could be caused by increasing global temperatures, Kelley said.

He noted that rapid rise in ocean levels coincides with a time of increased industrialization and, hence, pollution. Many scientists believe pollution from cars and industry is responsible for climbing global temperatures.

“Evidence shows it is an anomalous time,” the professor said.

Kelley, who has studied the retreat of glaciers in Alaska, said it is astounding that ice sheets in Glacier Bay are melting so fast that they are causing a 1 millimeter rise in sea level around the world each year.

Evidence also indicates that the national coastline is in danger, according to a report released last week by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. One quarter of homes and other structures within 500 feet of the coastline and shores of the Great Lakes are in danger of falling victim to erosion in the next 60 years, the FEMA report said.

There are 338,000 structures within 500 feet of the shoreline, half of them on the Atlantic coast. That means 53,000 homes and other buildings on the Atlantic coast are likely to be washed away. The report did not consider large cities such as Miami and New York, which are considered to have good erosion protection measures.

“The findings are sobering,” FEMA Director James Lee Witt said in a press release. “If coastal development continues unabated and if sea levels rise as some scientists are predicting, the impact will be even worse.”

Maine is better off than many other coastal states, geologist Kelley said, because it has taken some measures to stop development in the most threatened areas. As a result of a series of devastating coastal storms in 1978, laws were passed to prevent structures from being built on frontal dunes, those closest to the ocean. Houses that are destroyed as a result of coastal degradation cannot be rebuilt, and sea walls cannot be built.

“Maine designed a policy of moving back from the ocean,” Kelley said. “Most other states are much more lax.”

Perhaps because Maine’s coastline is not as developed as that of Florida or other ocean front states, there is not as much political fallout from coastal development regulations, he said.

Kelley and several graduate students studying under him are in the process of mapping erosion danger along the Maine coast. They have completed the section from the New Hampshire border to Blue Hill Bay and presented their finding to town officials so they can use it to control coastal development if warranted.

In a book written 10 years ago, Kelley wrote that several houses perched on a ledge in Rockport were in an area of high risk for mudslides. Two of those houses, near the Samoset Resort, did slide down the steep bank in 1996.

Among its many recommendations, the FEMA report said that national erosion hazard maps be developed and that the costs of expected erosion losses be included when setting flood insurance rates in coastal areas.

Other recommendations include: requiring building setbacks; requiring communities to have building standards that take into account erosion risks; and providing relocation help or buyouts to reduce the number of homes in high risk areas.

The FEMA study, which was conducted by The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, was ordered by Congress as part of an ongoing debate on how best to manage coastal erosion, which is now handled piecemeal by federal, state and local agencies.

The cost of lost and damaged property due to erosion was estimated to be $530 million per year.

The American Coastal Coalition, a group that promotes tourism in coastal areas, immediately attacked the report as a thinly veiled attempt to get people to move inland. It also said the federal government had no business interfering with local zoning and land use ordinances.

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