Barely a cloud in the sky and Portland, Maine, is flooding

The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of saltwater on the planet. In Portland, Maine, sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 17 inches by 2030 from the levels in 2000. Christopher Booker reports on how the city is trying to adapt to climate change as flooding from sea level rise increases. The story is part of our ongoing initiative, Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As sea ice melts and global oceans warm, sea levels are rising, presenting grave threats to small, low-lying island nations and to coastal areas here in the U.S. One example is in the Gulf of Maine: the ocean waters that stretch from Massachusetts to Nova Scotia.

    It is one of the fastest-warming bodies of saltwater on earth.

    Here in Portland, the gulf of Maine sea levels are expected to rise between 10 and 17 inches by the year 2030 compared to levels in 2000. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker explored what that means for this coastal city of Portland, and new efforts to study and adapt to the changing climate. This story is part of our ongoing series, 'Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.'

  • Christopher Booker:

    It's difficult to balance the contradiction that is this Friday afternoon in Portland, Maine.November, 48 degrees, light wind and barely a cloud in the sky, but despite a fall day that is as good as they come, the old Port is flooding. In the past, Portland might see a King Tide breach its streets only a handful of times. Part of the natural tidal cycle, these extra high tides coming during full or new moons fall and spring, when the moon is closest to the Earth and its elliptical orbit, but as the world warms and sea levels continue to rise, water will be coming to Portland's streets with far greater regularity. Models indicate that within the near future, high tides will breach city streets as many as 100 times a year.

  • Gayle Bowness:

    and this is an 11 and a half foot tide. We're going to see much, much more than that in the very near future, and it's going to be happening much more frequently.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Gayle Bowness is the Manager of the Municipal Climate Action Program with Portland's Gulf of Maine Research Institute. On this day, she helped lead a procession of local residents from the institute for a quick glimpse of the city's future. The journey was simple enough, walk a few blocks, turn onto one of Portland's many piers and there, on the street is the day's King Tide.

  • Gayle Bowness:

    So in Portland, we've seen our tidal levels raise eight inches over the past one hundred years, so it's a pretty gradual raise that rate of rises to steeply increase due to climate change. We'll see What we saw today happen more frequently in 20 30, so it might happen every month as opposed to just the fall in the spring season. Everything's coming up, not just our high water seasons.

  • Gayle Bowness:

    "We are going to see events like this happening 100 times a year instead of ten.

  • David Reidmiller:

    Getting people to think about climate change in their own communities can be really difficult because climate change can feel like, you know, a distant or far removed issue, whether in space or in time.

  • Christopher Booker:

    David Reidmiller is the director of the Climate Center with the institute. Encouraging those in attendance to take photos and post to social media as well as an online database tracking seal level rise, Reidimiller says the hope is after witnessing the flooding first hand, residents well begin to drive the conversation.

  • David Reidmiller:

    When people can see how this is actually manifesting in their day to day life. They can then go to City Council hearings. They can then start writing letters to their senators. They can start calling their representatives, it's really important that people get engaged in it and understand how it affects them, because at once you have an understanding of how it's going to affect you, you're going to be compelled to act and that's exactly what we're trying.

  • Christopher Booker:

    It is striking when you think about the distant projections of Arctic ice melts, sea level rise in places like the Maldives versus walking down your street and seeing a noontime king tide flood.

  • David Reidmiller:

    Yeah. You know what? What happens in one place in the world really echoes across the globe. And you know, I think we need to to to listen to one another, to learn from one another. You know, the experience that the Maldivians are going to have, that the Fijians, the Samoans, all of these places are really dealing with similar issues that we have. You know, we're fortunate in one sense, though, that we live in America. We have the resources to deal with a lot of these issues. You know, a lot of these developing countries don't have that ability.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Before joining the Institute, Reidmiller worked as a top science advisor for the Obama administration, playing an integral role in negotiating the 2016 Paris Climate Accords. Next, he served in the Trump Administration leading the fourth national climate assessment, a Congressionally-mandated report that's an authoritative assessment of climate science and the impacts on the U-S. Then he came to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to lead the Climate Center and help study how rising and warmer waters will change the Gulf's ecosystem, economy, and consequently, its culture.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What is the Gulf of Maine telling us about climate change?

  • David Reidmiller:

    There's a lot of things happening right in our backyard. As we talk about, we've got a living laboratory right here and so one of the biggest things that's happening is that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than probably about 95% of the world's oceans. Arguably the biggest and most climate-driven piece of this is that the Gulf Stream is changing. The Gulf Stream, you can think about it as a garden hose, right? That's really right now kind of it at full blast and bringing a whole bunch of heat from the tropics up to the North Atlantic, but as climate change unfolds, that Gulf Stream, you're kind of twisting the dial on that hose from a jet into a shower and so what happens then is you have some spill over of that heat and that warm water into the Gulf of Maine.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What does this portend for the immediate future?

  • David Reidmiller:

    You know, we're seeing a lot of species shifts underway. You know, this whole waterfront, this whole coastal community, so much of it is driven by what we can commercially harvest and grow with sustainable aquaculture in these waters. And we need to be prepared for and understand what changes are underway in the ecosystem out there.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And these changes are happening, not in 30 or 50 years, but right now and Reidmillier says its crucially important that all of Portland understands this.

  • David Reidmiller:

    And so we need to engage directly not only with the municipal leaders, but the residents, the fishermen, the local business leaders and present them with, frankly, information that they might not want to hear. We don't do science for science's sake, right? We do user-driven science. We know what the cause is. We know what the solutions are. And now it's just a matter of mustering the political will to actually make it happen.

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