Climate Change: A glimpse of the future as Rhode Islanders experience extreme “King Tides”

imageFor a glimpse of a future of higher seas, Rhode Islanders have to look no further than Wickford village during a king tide. Last weekend, in the midst of such an extreme high tide, the seawater in Wickford Cove steadily rose to street-level before cresting on Friday night and spilling into the Brown Street parking lot. The water subsided, but again on Saturday night, the parking lot flooded, this time, according to one observer, with a foot-and-a-half of water. These types of minor floods were once treated as nothing more than isolated events during king tides, which occur once or twice a year when the alignments of the sun, earth and moon maximize the gravitational pull on the oceans. But now climate scientists and coastal planners see so-called “nuisance flooding” as a harbinger of what’s to come as the seas continue to rise.
They are studying the extent of these periodic floods as they plan ways to protect roads and other critical infrastructure.
“A storm event comes in with a lot of energy, churns up our landscape, and retreats,” said Teresa Crean, community planner with the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island.
“Sea level rise is going to come in more incrementally and with less energy, but it’s going to come in continually with higher levels than we’re seeing now.
And that’s going to create a new daily normal for our coastal landscapes.”
The highest tides last week were between 1 foot and 1.8 feet higher than the upper benchmark for high tides in Rhode Island.
If the rate of sea-level rise continues to accelerate as expected, Rhode Island would see an increase of a foot of water by 2035 and two feet by 2050, according to federal projections adopted by the state Coastal Resources Management Council.
In those circumstances, today’s king tide would become the twice-daily high tide of tomorrow. Tomorrow’s king tide would be a foot or so higher than that.
And the handful of nuisance flooding days every year in Rhode Island could increase to a few dozen days in coming decades.
The entire East Coast has already seen or is facing drastic increases in the number of localized floods every year, according to studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Places like Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., where seas are not only rising but coastal land is also sinking, have fared the worst, with up to a nine-fold increase in flood events since the 1950s.
All three places are already experiencing 30 days or more a year of nuisance flooding, according to NOAA.
Rhode Island is on course to reach that mark sometime between 2031 and 2060.
Flooding during king tides already happens in places up and down the Ocean State’s 400 miles of coastline, from Westerly to Warren.
The Point neighborhood and the area around Spencer Park, both in Newport and both sitting on filled land, are susceptible.
So are the neighborhoods on Conimicut Point and those around Oakland Beach and Apponaug Cove, all in Warwick.
In a video that Wenley Ferguson, of Save The Bay, made during a king tide last fall, she wades through floodwaters on Arnolds Neck Drive on the western shore of Apponaug Cove.
“There are actually fish swimming by my feet,” Ferguson says on the video.
“And I’m standing on pavement.”
Wickford has always been vulnerable to flooding because it lies at such a low elevation, says Janet Freedman, coastal geologist with the CRMC.
The village sits on Narragansett Bay and is cut through by inlets, streams and marshes.
In the strongest coastal storms, which are expected to become more frequent as the earth warms, the village could be completely deluged, as it was in the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954 or experience significant flooding as it did in Hurricane Bob in 1991 and during superstorm Sandy in 2012 when water topped the Brown Street Bridge and whitecaps rolled across the Brown Street parking lot. Largely because of the village’s vulnerability, North Kingstown was chosen as the pilot community for a project led by the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant to assess and plan for climate change risks in Rhode Island. The big