Climate Change in Newport
From the National Trust’s Preservation Leadership Forum, September 4th, 2015 | a contribution to their series on climate change and cultural heritage by NRF’s executive director, Pieter N. Roos
Preservationists around the country are taking steps to document, protect, and mitigate the effects of climate change on cultural resources. In the summer issue of the Forum Journal, titled, “High Water and High Stakes: Cultural Resources and Climate Change,” contributors examined what changing weather patterns mean for cultural resources, what communities are doing to prepare, and how rising sea levels are already affecting communities. The PLF blog will continue to cover these issues; this week Pieter N. Roos, the executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, writes about the work that his organization is doing to address the effects of sea level rise on this historic Rhode Island community.
Like so many coastal cities, Newport, Rhode Island’s vitality is drawn from the sea. Through the centuries, Newport has been a powerful colonial entrepot, Gilded Age resort, base for the Navy, and currently, a vibrant tourist destination—each chapter formed by a distinct relationship to the water. Proximity to the ocean has always been one of Newport’s greatest assets; now it poses an imminent new threat.
Newport’s 376-year history is strikingly visible in neighborhoods populated by 18th- and 19th-century homes, commercial buildings, houses of worship, and wharves. This remarkable collection of historic structures is an extraordinary resource that deserves critical protection in the face of the new weather realities imposed by climate change. The Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF), of which I am the director, has saved and currently owns nearly 80 18th-century homes in Newport. Our stake in the stewardship of the city’s heritage is clear.
Newport’s historic connection to catastrophic weather events should be as obvious as its location. Over the centuries nearly a dozen hurricanes have directly hit Rhode Island. One of the worst and most tragic was the infamous Category III “Hurricane of 1938.” It was closely followed by Hurricane Carol, yet another Category III storm in 1954. These storms provide well-documented benchmarks for tidal flooding and help us understand the impact for low-lying areas. They also sound a warning for what increased tropical activity will bring in the future.
In recent decades, climate-related sea level rise has begun to change the frequency and severity of hurricanes along the East and Gulf coasts. Katrina, Irene, and Sandy wrought widespread destruction and suffering, including significant damage to cultural heritage. Since 1990 Newport has been brushed by nine hurricanes and been hit directly by one; five of those have occurred in the last seven years.1 Often, these storms have caused “100-year floods” (an extreme hydrologic event that has a statistical recurrence interval of 100 years, but more literally is an event that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any year).2
Hurricanes are unpredictable and in any given year may or may not affect us, but two, increasingly common, climate change events affect us individually or combine to create larger problems yet. The first is a nearly 70 percent increase in “major rain events” over the last two decades. The rain creates flooding in basements and on streets as downpours overwhelm local storm sewers. The second event has seen the high tide mark rise about 8 inches over the last 75 years. “Extreme” high tides appear more frequently and have an even more exaggerated impact.3
Together, a high tide and a major rain event puts seawater rushing up the bay and rainwater running down the hill on a collision course in the lower areas of the city. This “nuisance” flooding as it is categorized is anything but a nuisance for those who regularly suffer from it. In Newport, this collision occurs in the Point Neighborhood, a National Landmark district notable for its dense grid of 18th-century homes. Basement and street flooding have become regular occurrences, raising questions about municipal capacity, flood insurance coverage, tax base erosion, and implications for tourism. Property owners on the Point represent both public and private interests, which will ultimately be critical to the area’s resilience. Homeowners, public officials, and preservation organizations like NRF have united around their concerns and now discuss strategies to mitigate the effects of sea level rise and coastal flooding. Community forums, panels, hydrology studies, and committees are under way.
We are not alone in Newport, nor are we even close to being the most severely affected in this regard, but the portents are troubling. So what do we do? While sea level rise is a global concern, such issues are not currently governed by state or federal authorities. Instead town and city governments are left to solve a planetary-scale problem. There may be many solutions, current and potential, but communication is the first step. Good ideas are literally all over the map, and the solutions may not lie within our national borders. Europe has a much more proactive national response to sea level rise and climate change, and we need to search everywhere for answers. It is timely and necessary for the preservation community to join climatologists, city planners, engineers, oceanographers, landscape architects, and elected officials in conversation.
In response to this need, the Newport Restoration Foundation, together with the National Trust, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Roger Williams University, URI, and Salve Regina University, is convening a conference April 10-13, 2016 to explore the role of historic preservation in saving coastal communities. The conference, “Keeping History Above Water,” will assemble multi-disciplinary experts from across the U.S. and Europe to outline the problem, and then to consider prototype solutions through lectures, workshops and tours. In gathering the forces of preservation, architecture, and engineering, we will begin a discussion that will move us toward the future. Information about the conference can be found at www.historyabovewater.org.
There is no single solution to climate change. Rather, a variety of strategies on multiple scales will be needed to address the major intellectual and physical changes that need to occur. Preservationists may not have all the answers, but we can help formulate solutions by inviting professionals from related disciplines to consider the problem. Join us in Newport next April and be a part of conversation on climate change and resiliency to sea level rise to preserve our historic communities.original article
1. “Tropical Systems That Impacted Newport County RI – 1898 to Present.” NewportRIWeather.com, 1 Sept. 2012. Web 17 July 2015. < http://www.newportriweather.com/mwd/hurricanes/hurricanes.htm >.
2. Perlman, Howard. “Floods: Recurrence intervals and 100-year floods (USGS).” USGS.gov, 12 Nov. 2014. Web 17 July 2015. < http://water.usgs.gov/edu/100yearflood.html >.
3. Forgue, Julia, Rob Schultz, JR Frey, Peter von Zweck, Becky Weig, Suibing Liu, and Chelsae Durante. “Drainage Investigation and Flood Analysis: Wellington Avenue and Bridge Street.” City of Newport and CH2M. Pell Elementary School, Newport, RI. 15 July 2015. Public Informational Meeting #1. Sea levels have risen 1/10” per year on average for the last eight years, suggesting an 8” in sea level rise since 1930. Water levels are exceeding Mean Higher High Water (MHHW) elevations 200+ days per year as opposed to 50+ days per year in 1930, a drastic change in tide fluctuation. The projections for sea level rise vary widely, both locally and nationally. The 2014 US National Climate Assessment predicts a global increase of 1’-4’ by 2100; US EPA predicts 2’-6’ of rise for Newport by 2100. A detailed study by RI Sea Grant predicts 3’-5’ for Newport, by 2100.
Image caption: 47 Poplar, one of Newport Restoration Foundation’s historic homes. | Credit: Newport Restoration Foundation