From Tangier Island to Long Island: How Will Coastal Communities Adapt to Sea Level Rise?

This past month, the New York Times Magazine published an excellent, distressing piece by Jon Gertner on the threat posed by sea level rise facing Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. The island has a population of less than 500, but its relative isolation and centuries-old history make it unique. On Tangier Island, the effects of sea level rise aren’t speculative, they are already here as seawater encroaches on private homes and property, and residents and officials scramble to figure out what or should be done to save the community. 

The article raises difficult questions about how coastal communities will adapt to sea level rise. How will it change their way of life? How do we decide who gets funding and for what projects? What are the limits to engineering our way out?  And can places like Tangier Island even be saved at all?

We’re trying to answer these questions for the New York region. In a project in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, RPA is working with two coastal communities, Sea Bright, N.J., and Mastic Beach, Long Island, to explore their answers to these challenges.

Billions of dollars have been spent on recovery since Hurricane Sandy in communities like Sea Bright and Mastic Beach, but not enough has gone toward planning for long-term resiliency. This is understandable, given funding guidelines that don’t allow for resiliency upgrades and the urgent need for communities and individuals to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. Our hope for the project is to work with the communities to find out what kind of future they envision for themselves in the face of the daunting reality of sea level rise, and figure out what steps to take to achieve that vision over the next 50 years.

Like Tangier Island, the communities of Sea Bright and Mastic Beach are working class and close-knit. And just like Tangier Island, they live with the evidence of sea level rise in their everyday lives–from saline intrusion that is killing trees to keeping waders in their cars in order to get home during particularly high tides. For residents, the ocean is both central to their way of life, and the biggest threat to it, with estimates of as much as 15-30 inches of sea level rise by 2050. In trying to adapt, they face similar issues of competing for project funding with much larger and more affluent towns.

 

THE WORKSHOPS

In the past few weeks, a team from RPA has held workshops with residents and local leaders in Sea Bright and Mastic Beach to discuss the combination of strategies–physical or political, structural or nature-based–that will help the community adapt over the coming five decades.

These discussions are challenging, both because of the technical and complex nature of many climate adaptation strategies and the real and at times frightening consequences that climate change and the strategies to manage it pose to residents. To spark conversation and to help put into context what long-term climate planning could look like, we created an adaptation exercise where participants work in teams and use finite resources to decide how, where and when they will protect their community from sea-level rise and severe storms. 

     Leaders and residents in Mastic Beach weigh option regarding their community. (Photo: RPA)

Each team received a deck of cards with potential adaptation strategies, like “Construct Dunes or Berms” or “Revise Land Use Rules,” each of which had different timelines for implementation and costs. We also presented participants with a map of their communities, with overlays indicating the areas in which three-foot and six-foot sea level rise would overlap with currently developed land. Midway through the game, which spanned between present day and 2050, participants were also faced with an unanticipated event, from changes in funding or a new severe storm or hurricane that would put to the test the decisions made and raise new questions for future adaptation decisions. 

 

WHAT WE HEARD

Our goal for these workshops was to promote  the idea that in spite of all the challenges, approaching climate change adaptation strategically also can open up opportunities to improve the community. By prioritizing projects that have multiple benefits, projects are also more cost-effective and may be able to tap into new funding sources. For example, in sewer-less Mastic Beach, health code prevents restaurants from having more than 16 seats, hampering local economic development. So upgrading utilities would not only prevent pollution and damage during a flood, but also allow local businesses to increase their capacity. Bringing back wetlands not only restores natural systems and creates protection from flooding but also can become a local economic asset through recreation and tourism. We found that many workshop participants were well aware of these opportunities  already. While some workshop participants hoped to keep the town as unchanged as possible, others brought up creative ways to transform the community for the better while maintaining its essence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants cited funding and political will as the biggest obstacles in adapting.

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of the existential questions these communities face, and we are very grateful for the community members and leaders who have been willing to have those conversations with us. It’s only by having these tough conversations can we begin to adapt our communities to the effects of climate change.