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New sea-level rise projections could help N.H. towns plan for impacts of climate change

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
A ten-foot tide in Hampton floods low-lying streets

By 2050, coastal flooding severe enough to cause damage is expected to happen more than 10 times as often as it does today, according to a new report from federal climate scientists. The report has the most concrete projections for sea-level rise ever published for the United States.

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But for Tom Bassett, who grew up visiting Hampton Beach and now owns a home there, the new numbers from climate scientists confirm what he’s already been experiencing: flooding is a problem that’s not going away.

The new projections show sea levels on the East Coast could rise about a foot in the next 30 years. They sharpen the focus on what a wetter future could look like on New Hampshire’s Seacoast.

Bassett said he's been experiencing flooding over the past 15 years, and the problem is becoming more chronic and serious.

“The flooding prevents us from getting out of our neighborhood when the water’s high. And in the winter, when the water’s high and then freezes, of course, this becomes a major hazard, because our streets are turned to ice,” he said.

He knows older residents in his neighborhood could be at risk: What if they need medical help, and flooding prevents an ambulance from getting in?

Bassett is helping Hampton plan for increased flooding as a part of his work with the Coastal Hazards Adaptation Team. The team hopes to help the town make its operations resilient to climate change, from development to transportation, he said.

In Hampton, efforts to plan for sea-level rise have been underway for about a decade, said Jay Diener, vice-chair of the Hampton Conservation Commission. Recently, the town wrote a coastal resilience section into its master plan.

Though New Hampshire is better prepared than five or ten years ago, Diener said there’s more to do.

“I don't know if we are adequately prepared for what may be the frequency of high tide flooding or the potential intensity of storm surge impacts.”

And more detailed information about sea-level rise can be helpful for the planning process.

“It gives us more reliable information to work with,” Deiner said.

A team convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning to release a guide on applying new sea-level projections to local planning and adaptation decisions.

Peter Britz, the environmental planner and sustainability coordinator with the City of Portsmouth, said he’s glad to have new information.

Portsmouth started tracking sea-level rise in 2012, Britz said, and used different scenarios based on greenhouse gas emissions to make projections for how climate change could affect the city, finding that the historic district would be most impacted.

The new report’s finding that sea-level rise on the East Coast will be between 10 and 14 inches by 2030 is similar to the projections Portsmouth used to create their adaptation plan, but the new numbers are more certain, according to the report’s authors.

The new numbers could help fine-tune that study, but Britz says more data about how exactly rising sea levels would impact different parts of Portsmouth would be helpful for planning. That kind of modeling would likely require grant funding, he said.

“It certainly is a concern. We're trying to track it and raise awareness for people in the city and need to keep revisiting. It's not something that you can just sort of identify and leave alone,” he said.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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