Sand, Salt, and Sea Level Rise: A BARS Campaign Update of Newburyport and Plum Island
BY KRISTIN KELLEHER & TOM O’NEILL, Nov.1 2018
An aerial view of downtown Newburyport from the Rear Range Lighthouse
Nestled along the banks of the Merrimack River, you’ll find the delightfully charming town of Newburyport, and further out toward the shore, Plum Island. The small, sleepy city has some eccentric local quirks like that of the Pink House. Erosion on Plum Island is a well-known issue, which makes the threat of severe weather all the more present in the community. One of the most satisfying parts of the BARS campaign has been getting to know people in these communities, hearing their stories, and making connections.
Nothing was more helpful than the connections made for us by Mark, Elisabeth, and Anne at Newburyport Chamber of Commerce, as well as the critical advice from key sustainability leaders at Newburyport City Hall and our friends at Storm Surge. Thank you for making us feel more than welcomed in the town; we hope that our findings will be helpful in making Newburyport more resilient!
Starting our days at Commune Cafe gave us a nice central location where we could plan, caffeinate, and catch up on the latest news. As of right now, we have interviewed a total of 11 businesses in Newburyport and Plum Island, bringing us to a total of 95 in-depth interviews for our Businesses Acting on Rising Seas BARS Campaign.
Surfland Bait and Tackle on Plum Island.
Martha at Surfland shared with us a thick binder filled with old photographs, news articles, and personal stories about the weathered history of Plum Island. It can be hard to blame climate change for any singular weather event; climate is about long term trends, not just singular events, and we are beginning to feel the consequences of our collective carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. Need convincing? Just take a look at the evidence. While knowledge of the ebbs and flows of natural ecological systems becomes second-hand to local residents, it is important to remember the cumulative impacts that our actions are having around our shared world.
Historical pictures from Plum Island, evidence of severe beach erosion from weather events.
We heard time and time again about how the downtown area is prone to flooding even in the lightest of rain; it doesn’t take a major storm here. Our Resiliency Team was able to make it all over town and really developed a sense of where the vulnerable areas are. From the industrial park to downtown, most businesses rate their climate risk as a high priority. A recent report published by the National Wildlife Federation highlights what the future coast of Newburyport will look like, and plans to preserve the salt marsh around town. This map taken from the report shows just how drastic of an impact sea level rise could have for Plum Island, the road connecting it to the mainland could soon be gone.
Projected flooding of the Plum Island Turnpike from the National Wildlife Federation.
Amanda, at Vaalbara, told us about how even just last week the road in front of their business flooded, a seemingly all too common event.
Yes! [We flooded] last weekend, I had to use a heater and I had to lift my rug and and soak up everything with paper towels and rags. We do have a canal that was kind of built because before we had flooding come all the way in here. The flooding was coming in higher, up to 2 feet way. And then I get the clogging of the sewers because the rain comes so quickly that there is not a lot of drainage. So people that drive by and don’t slow down- I get all of that. I have water come in 6 feet.
This has caused some businesses to permanently keep sandbags on hand near store entrances. It’s always a surprise to learn about how local of an issue flooding can be, in many cases one side of a street will flood while the other stays dry. While that may be the case today, over the coming decades as sea levels increase and more powerful storms hit, our flood maps will have to be redrawn.
We were impressed by Face/Food and their awareness around all environmental issues, from selling the finest all-natural products to having an amazing recycling program. They even have a TerraCycle Zero Waste Box, and offer customers discounts based on how many recyclables they deposit during their visit. Located right in the heart of downtown Newburyport, it’s easy to see how a business like this can become a staple in the community.
Newburyport is a classic New England town. Settled centuries ago, it continues to face the modern challenges placed before it. Along with many old towns, narrow roads and aging infrastructure tend to be an issue as we heard “I would say the city’s snow removal has been an issue in the past for sure. Or just the city planning around snow removal with so many narrow streets you know, some of them should be one way instead of two way during that time of year, as weird as that would be.” The challenges presented by climate change will be more than just flooding, and innovative solutions will be needed to maintain our communities.
Sea level rise and climate change will have disproportionate effects based on geography, income, and policy approaches. While it is our individual responsibility to take care of our planet, larger societal and cultural contexts construct the limits from which we can act. Taking control of our own resiliency is a crucial first-step for ensuring the protection of our assets, livelihoods, and futures. In the meantime, we found an online tool that maps out what sea level rise would look like at various depths around Newburyport. As our outreach ends and the writing of the BARS campaign begins, it’s important to reflect on why we do what we do. Ashley from Ride the Wave Yoga kept things real and put it all into perspective. So to end this post and leave some food for thought, let’s consider resiliency to not be so abstract.
“The more manageable, practical tips associations like CABA can provide to small businesses, such as using waterproof paint, the less intangible resiliency becomes. What business is going to question implementing easy tips like this? Businesses want info that helps them– the more immediately applicable the better. Just to start conversations by asking effected businesses simple questions to get them thinking starts to make it real for them. Because until you make it real for them, climate change is going to remain this abstract thing.”
Ashley, Ride the Wave Yoga