NARRAGANSETT —Rhode Island got a head start preparing for rising sea levels and now has a set of data and tools that the state's top coastal management official says "don't exist anywhere else in the United States."
The official, Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, provided an update on the program — the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan — to scientists, government officials, and the public on Nov. 21 at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
“Other programs have talked about it, but they can’t seem to get to where we are and it is a real boon to the state to be able to have the information they now have for planning, because it will put us ahead of every other state,” Fugate said.
Work on Rhode Island’s beach SAMP, as it's known, began about a year before Superstorm Sandy struck the Rhode Island coast in 2012.
“It was an outgrowth of the Matunuck area, particularly a sea wall application that had come in from the town,” Fugate said, referring to South Kingstown. “It was a set of contentious hearings … but one of the things that became clear was the towns did not have a good understanding of what was coming and how to deal with it.”
Part of the CRMC’s decision on the sea wall involved initiating a plan that would take a long range look at changes to the shoreline. “They were significant changes and we needed to start to get a handle on it and try to figure out what was going on,” Fugate said.
The damage from Sandy had an upside: More federal funds became available for shoreline resilience projects. As work on the management plan began, its timing coincided with the availability of funds for projects in Rhode Island.
In another significant post-Sandy event, the Federal Emergency Management Agency produced a new set of flood risk maps, and surprised scientists by dropping flood elevation estimates by 3 feet from those on its previous maps.
With coastal Rhode Island communities already experiencing the effects of sea level rise, storm surge and erosion, CRMC met with FEMA officials to ask why the agency had not accounted for sea level rise in its new maps.
“All the research that we’re seeing now, sea level rise estimates are going up, which means that the time scales are shifting forward on us,” Fugate said. “So things are accelerating ... We met with FEMA and FEMA essentially told us to leave them alone unless we had a study."
The CRMC asked URI ocean engineering professor emeritus Malcom Spaulding to examine the data in the FEMA maps and Spaulding found several errors.
Using data collected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Spaulding began modeling Rhode Island storms, and eventually produced STORMTOOLS — interactive online maps that allow municipalities and homeowners to calculate their flooding risks, accounting for projected sea level rise.
Fugate reminded the audience, however, that even with the latest information at their fingertips, it is unlikely that people who can afford to build houses in vulnerable coastal areas will move inland.
“Many of those homes are second, third and fourth homes, very wealthy people who can afford to buy them, afford to see those homes disappear and rebuild those homes,” he said. “And they will continue to do so as long as they have money. This program wasn’t developed for those homes. This program was developed for the homes that are second, third, fifth streets back, whose owners have no idea that they have a flooding risk right now."
Coastal environmental risk index
Another tool developed as part of the special management plan is the "coastal environmental risk index," which refines the data available for determining risk by estimating flood hazards for individual buildings from sea level rise, storm surge, waves, and erosion.
“It allows us to get a much better picture of what’s going to happen to our communities,” Fugate said. “Most communities have to wait and see what’s going to happen as the event occurs. We don’t have to. We can show you what might happen to a community.”
Summaries of data and tools are available in the seven chapters that comprise Volume 1 of the management plan. Also in Volume 1 is a five-step risk assessment that must now be completed as part of the coastal building permit process.
“One of the biggest issues we have is that our regulations and our performance standards today are built on the assumption that nothing changes as of today,” Fugate said. “We know things are changing but we aren’t telling people how to anticipate what those changes are or the environment that they could likely expect and how to build to that environment for the future.”
Online risk assessment tools
Spaulding, who helped develop STORMTOOLS and the coastal risk index, or CERI, said the maps first showed flooding with up to 12 feet of sea level rise and then added areas at risk for nuisance flooding, which occurs when there isn’t a storm.
Spaulding provided information, illustrated by the maps, on several communities, including Westerly and Charlestown.
“Here’s where our students are working right now,” he said, indicating Winnapaug Pond. “I’m trying to get them excited about the fact that in 2100, if you live at the western end of Winnapaug Pond and you’re close to the water, you might want to take a deep breath.”
Watch Hill, Spaulding noted, is protected from large waves but not from storm surge.
In Charlestown, “the good news is, Route 1 still works,” he said, “We have the long term glacial geology to thank for that. So, the glacial advance, the glacial retreat, another advance, a nice big mound of dirt and rocks and stuff, a highway that’s right along it. We’re really fortunate that a coast-parallel highway is not in harm’s way.”
The CRMC has also designed a coastal risk mobile phone app, which is available now. Developed in response to requests from government officials, insurance companies, banks and regulators, the app provides information on risks to individual buildings selected by the app user.
Coastal geologist Bryan Oakley of Eastern Connecticut State University has been documenting shoreline change using geographic information system mapping.
“It’s all based on GIS, he said. “It’s relying on two main data sources. There’s historical aerial imagery and digital orthophotographs.” Orthophotographs are aerial images that have been geometrically corrected to make the images uniform.
Oakley’s team recorded annual shoreline changes as well as total changes. “You have years where there is very little change and then you have a storm, or a bunch of storms and a whole lot of erosion happens," he said. "This is a way of annualizing and spreading out the change over that time period, but it happens more in leaps and bounds than in slow steps.”
Information on the SAMP, CERI and the new CERI app is available at: