Sustaining the coastline: Efforts need to start 'yesterday'

When Juliana Barrett, from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), came to the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center in Milford on Dec. 7 and gave a slide presentation to over 50 people about “Coastal Sustainability,” she knew her audience was concerned.

Of the 26 municipalities in Connecticut located along the coast, Milford has the longest shoreline — and, by some counts, the most vulnerable.

For instance, according to the National Flood Insurance Program's list of “Severe Repetitive Loss Properties” in the US — properties flooded during storms and rebuilt from two to four times — Connecticut has the greatest number of such properties in all six New England states (about half), and, of those, the greatest number is in Milford. If Milford residents don't have a stake in coastal sustainability, who else in Connecticut does?

Dr. Barrett explored climate change impacts to the environment over the next century. She began at the global level, addressed the New England region, and zoomed down to Connecticut coast.

Attendees agreed it was a comprehensive Big Picture. Slides quantified the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; warming on land; ocean acidification; rising ocean temperatures; sea-level rise due to that warming as well as to melting ice sheets at the poles and melting glaciers; extreme weather events, particularly intense coastal storms; areas of increased precipitation or drought; coastline erosion; saltwater intrusion; hazards for wildlife; threats to food security, including the alteration of plant flowering schedules; forest migrations; pollution and heat-related illnesses.

It's a long list, but to the extent that a problem can be mapped, measured, and timed, it can be managed.

One complication of finding information about sea-level rise and coastal storms in Connecticut is that our shoreline is buffered from the ocean by Long Island Sound. Furthermore, “granular” data for specific municipalities along the shore, such as Milford, is limited. Still, Dr. Barrett was able to show us aerial photos of the changing beach at Silver Sands in a time series from the 1880s to 2006.

Beyond describing and quantifying the problems, Dr. Barrett gave some examples of further research and experiments aimed at solutions. Her own current research is to study two four-mile sections of seawalls in Connecticut, with the long-term goals of making the first-ever accurate state map and assessing whether seawalls actually do provide protection or not.

Two examples of experiments involved tidal marshes damaged by storms. One experiment in New Jersey sprays a thin sediment on a marsh in New Jersey to help feed it. In another case, a land trust is buying up land on either side of a damaged marsh so it can migrate freely.

Dr. Barrett spent her time describing trends, not telling her audience what to do. Nonetheless, the audience could see where the trends lead. Given its substantial coastline exposure, Milford needs not only to collect as much detailed information as it can on local sustainability, but also to start experimenting with ways to improve and accelerate sustainability. Both projects should start yesterday.