For some years now, climate scientists have been trying, without much success, to get public officials in low-lying coastal areas to begin planning to meet the challenges of rising sea level. Although their warnings are not new, a report from a nonprofit organization — and a nifty associated interactive Web site — may help focus attention on this looming if slow-motion disaster.
East Hampton and Southampton Towns, surrounded and indented by water as they are, should be at the forefront of planning for what scientists say could be an eight-inch rise in sea level by 2030 and two-foot rise by 2100. But there has been little, if any, preparation. The state asked municipalities to deal with coastal issues by adopting Local Waterfront Revitalization Programs, but these documents were largely drafted before the scale of climate predictions was widely understood.
The risk, as documented by Climate Central, based in Princeton, N.J., is that by the end of the century, as many as 3.7-million United States residents could see their homes threatened by flooding and erosion. An eight-inch vertical rise in sea level may not sound like much, but studies have demonstrated that the shoreline moves landward at a disproportionate and frightening rate. The results can be seen at sealevel.climatecentral.org.
Scientists say the only rational policy is an orderly retreat from low-lying portions of the coast. Nowhere in East Hampton Town is this more obvious than in Montauk, where a two-foot rise in sea level — erosion or storm surge — would undermine about 33 houses and erase more than 3 percent of its landmass. Factor in the landward migration of the shore as the water rises and you have a disaster of tremendous scale. With a three-foot rise, as some predict, all of Lazy Point and Gerard Drive in Springs, as well as most of Star Island, Montauk, would be gone.
Not everyone has ignored the threat. Insurance companies began dropping homeowners’ policies in coastal areas several years ago. New York State has tried to divest itself of responsibility for managing aspects of the shoreline by handing control of erosion-control structures to the localities. But, despite the whole problem’s being dumped in their laps, town and village officials have reacted with a collective shrug. At the very least, they should study reports like this and establish goals for retreating from rather than armoring the shores.
The time to prepare for the worst is now.