Boston Vulnerable to Sea-Level Rise
Hurricane’s Ida’s devastating impacts on Florida’s seacoast communities provide a stark warning to Boston which is similarly vulnerable to the combined impacts of storm surges and sea level rise which is universally predicted as inevitable.
Sea level rise is due largely from accelerated melting of the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers and ice sheets from global warming, and to a lesser but significant degree from ocean waters’ expanding volumes due to warming temperatures.
The consequences of sea level rise are ominous for Boston. Currently accepted scientific data indicate that by the year 2050 New England coastal communities will experience an average sea level rise of three to six feet. This would be a catastrophe for East Boston, a peninsula bordered by Boston Harbor and the Chelsea Creek, with a possible flooded area of over 300 acres. Charlestown, the North End and Seaport District would also be severely impacted as would Winthrop and Chelsea. Logan Airport, due to its massive filling of once-open Boston Harbor, has removed 2,000 acres of inner harbor that once served as a buffer between tidal surges and East Boston and Winthrop.
There is a brilliant proposal that would protect all of Boston Harbor, its adjoining communities, the seaport facilities and Logan Airport. A brilliant city planner, Antonio DiMambro, has proposed an award-winning project, praised by noted oceanographer John Englander, that would not only protect the entire harbor and it’s neighborhoods from sea level rise but also protect its maritime dependent economic base. Mr. DiMambro has described his brainchild as “Boston’s Safety Belt”, a series of connected barriers linking Deer Island, Long Island, and Squantum into a bulwark across the harbor, with 15 foot gates that would rotate closed to protect the harbor and city from storm surges. The outer harbor would effectively become an encircled pond, shielding Boston and its harbor from storm surges and sea level rise. Winthrop’s inner harbor from Point Shirley to Court Road would also be protected, as well as the Bayswater Street neighborhood of East Boston.
Such an undertaking would not be inexpensive in the short term but would be critical in the long term as protection for the incalculably valuable seaport assets and irreplaceable neighborhoods of Boston. I believe that Massport, created by the legislature in 1956 to be the steward and protector of Boston Harbor assets, including Logan Airport which would be severely impacted by sea level rise to the point of closure, must play a vital role in the underwriting of an effective sea level rise protective system. In 2012 Boston narrowly escaped the massive destruction from Superstorm Sandy, endured by New Jersey and New York, by six hours because the storm struck at low tide instead of high tide. The safety of East Boston, all Boston neighborhoods, and Winthrop as well as the security of the region’s air transportation and maritime infrastructure should not be dependent on a chance tidal occurrence.
A moveable sea barrier system for Boston Harbor would not be precedent setting. Not surprisingly the Dutch have been leading the way in creating and operating real world moveable sea barrier systems. For example, one which has been operating successfully is the Maeslantkering Barrier on the Nieuwe Waterweg, protecting the major cities of Rotterdam and Antwerp from the ravages of storm surge and sea level rise.
Boston is not the only American coastal city facing the inevitability and consequences of sea level rise. Just recently New York and New Jersey have begun reviewing, on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction, a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect their communities from sea level rise and storm surge devastation by constructing a huge gate system consisting of 12 movable sea barriers across New York Harbor. Estimated cost of the New York sea barrier proposal is $52 Billion. While the Boston Harbor proposal would not approach that level
Former Massport Board Member
Former Boston Transportation Commissioner