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How Climate Change Is Already Affecting Infrastructure In N.H.

Chris Jensen

The U.S. government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment report at the end of last week that shows the effects of climate change are already here – both in New England and all over the country.

Jennifer Jacobs is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Hampshire, and she’s the lead author on that report’s chapter on transportation and infrastructure.

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Jacobs about her work and what it means for New Hampshire.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Let me ask you first about what your work says about what is happening right here in New Hampshire right now. How is our state's infrastructure affected by climate change already?

Well probably the biggest effects that we see in New Hampshire [is] along the New Hampshire Seacoast [with] the rising seas and some of these high tide floods. We saw them a lot last winter and we're anticipating seeing them quite a bit in the future.

We have talked a lot about what's happening right along the Seacoast with that sea level rise, but I don't know if people really think too much about the heavier rainfall and the flooding that's happening more inland with roads and infrastructure. What about those rural areas say in the Northern or Western parts of the state?

Well, those areas are really vulnerable. What we've been finding with the changing climate is that we have more precipitation, more precipitation happening overall. This fall was a great example. And more precipitation [is] happening in these heavy storms. And so we saw an example a few years back from Hurricane Irene where we just had devastating floods throughout the area. But we're routinely seeing pop up floods throughout the region that are either putting roads under water, or taking out roads and culverts and making areas inaccessible. So this is something that's certainly happening throughout the state.

And again you can quantify this over the last several years. You've seen more heavier rain events.

We can quantify this over the last 30 years. We're seeing an upward trend. And what the climate science special report said was that this area, the Northeast areas, is the area that's seeing the largest changes in rainfall.

And you mentioned Hurricane Irene, which you know came through especially in parts of the North Country, but into Vermont particularly. There's still areas in Vermont that have yet to fully recover from where they were several years before that. Isn't that true?

Absolutely. And that was one of our key messages in this in the transportation chapter is talking about not just how the transportation is affected, but how communities are affected. And one of the things that we've found, not just in New Hampshire, but across the nation is that small communities don't have the capability to be able to recover from these events like a large metropolitan area would be able to. And so it takes years, sometimes even longer than that, to be able to put humpty dumpty back together again after these devastating floods.

And do you see towns and cities, especially along the Seacoast I imagine, but do you see the towns and cities responding to this in their planning and looking ahead and being forward thinking?

Absolutely. All the Seacoast communities are aware of what the challenges are. Many of them are putting in different regulations. They're including sea level rise in their planning process. So it's a time where there's a lot of movement in our coastal region to really being able to handle this. And I would say New Hampshire is really a leader in this area. The community and the strength, even though we've got a relatively small seacoast, is really a shining star in our nation.

You know the last year or two years, seeing more of these heavy rainfall events, seeing more instances of coastal flooding, do you see people's attitude changing?

I do see people's attitude changing, and I think that's for the general public. And one of the things that's really interesting that's come out fairly recently is a number of these Zillow house surveys where what they're finding is that the increases in value for residential properties is not increasing as fast in coastal areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise as compared to those houses that are at a higher elevation. So people are starting to recognize this and they're voting with their pocketbook.

Well, the report shows in New Hampshire might be a bit better off in some instances from other parts of the country, but a lot of our infrastructure is old. It's built along rivers. It's rooted in our history of mill towns. I'm wondering how some heavy rain events and more heavy rain events could contribute to water pollution issues or other issues of infrastructure.

So we didn't really tackle the water quality issues. But what we do know is that anytime a road washes out it puts debris into the river. And in order to be able to repair those bridges or repair those roads, we oftentimes try to put construction vehicles into the riverbed. And that really can potentially cause damage to those rivers or to the ecosystems in those rivers. And so I think as we start seeing these events more and more, we start getting smarter about how do we get those barricades off the road as fast as possible, but also how do we make certain that we protect our rivers and our ecosystems.

Well the last thing I want to ask you, are you hopeful seeing how towns and cities are planning ahead? Do you feel that we can handle the effects of climate change going forward? 

I'm cautiously optimistic. The New Hampshire effort that's been put forward to date is really forward thinking. We've got a great team of people that are working and are very aware of what the challenges are. That said, these challenges are not going to be easy to address. As we're talking about sea level rise, by the end of the century on the order of 6.5 feet to 8 feet, and in some cases we can't engineer ourselves out of that. Across the country there's already communities, coastal communities that are in the process of retreating from the ocean. And so these are not engineering questions. These are our community questions and these are planning questions that are going to be really difficult to handle.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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