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Portland plans for action in the face of rising seas and bigger storms

 How wet will we get?
By JEFF INGLIS  |  October 14, 2013

PREDICTION Clean Air Cool Planet’s map projects the extent of a 3.3-foot sea-level rise with a 2.6-foot storm surge. 

By the turn of the next century, most of the areas of Portland that were filled in during the 1800s to create more land downtown will be either underwater or regularly flooded during storms. We need to figure out what to do about that.

It doesn’t matter whether you think humans are or aren’t causing climate change. It doesn’t even matter if you are unsure whether climate change is happening at all. What counts is this: “We’re all going to get wet.”

That’s the frank assessment from Sam Merrill, who until last week was a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The same conclusion is clear from a wide range of reports over many years, including the latest update from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released on Monday, which predicts sea levels will rise somewhere between 10 and 32 inches by 2100. And don’t forget about storm surges.

Merrill has worked for several years in partnership with private companies and federal research support, learning how best to help people adapt to the changing environment they find themselves in. That included a preliminary look at how much flooding Portland’s Back Cove might see in the future, which led to various meetings among Bayside residents, property owners, and businesspeople to discuss what might be done in response.

His company, Catalysis Adaptation Partners, puts that research into practice, and will present a report next month on what Portlanders can expect on the Commercial Street side of the peninsula in 2050 and 2100, to kickstart a Portland Society for Architecture community-wide conversation about what actions public and private entities might take to avert, avoid, or at least minimize disaster.

Merrill has left the university to devote himself to doing similar work worldwide, combining science with what might be called “civic psychotherapy,” supporting local communities as they develop solutions to the problems they face as a result of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.

He’s already helping planners at Boston’s Logan Airport and in Florida, and even in Minnesota, which is struggling with extreme weather events that wash out bridges along the shore of Lake Superior. The local governments in London and in Santos, Brazil (just outside Sao Paulo)*, have brought Catalysis in to help them develop plans to avoid getting so wet in the future.

Big changes, bigger questions
In 2007, Merrill realized that the debate around climate change had been subsumed by two excesses: data and fear. We knew a whole lot about how bad things are likely to get, but had very little idea what would be the best approach to minimize the harm and damage.

The prospects are pretty terrifying. If all the ice on the planet melted, sea level would rise 216 feet, according to the US Geological Survey, as quoted in National Geographic magazine’s September issue. In Portland, that would leave about six feet of the very top of the Portland Observatory above the water.

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