The impact of climate change on coastal communities may seem like an unknown quantity for some day in the future, but ask emergency management and public safety personnel or others involved in emergency management planning, and they'll note that the unknown quantity is already being felt. Access routes to and from some communities, such as Cutler, are vulnerable to storm surges. So too are the causeway and surrounding low‑lying areas in Machias as well as parts of Lubec's downtown and many other areas of land where roadways and other types of infrastructure are often located.
The importance of understanding climate change's impact on low‑lying areas was brought home at five meetings held in October and November around the county, where public input was sought for a new planning tool being developed by Judy East, executive director of Washington County Council of Governments, and Tora Johnson, director and instructor of the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) Global Information System Laboratory and Service Center. However, it wasn't just the issue of cut‑off access that was being studied. Also at issue for public safety are increases in insect‑borne diseases such as Lyme; agricultural disruptions brought about by pathogens, drought or extreme precipitation; economic uncertainty; and the loss of natural resources such as wetlands to erosion.
Professionals, volunteers and individuals involved in all aspects of emergency management and public safety attended the meetings in order to help with the refinement of a series of town and bay specific climate vulnerability assessments that they will be able to use starting in early 2014 for emergency planning purposes, land use planning and zoning. East says, "We are getting very useful feedback from lots of county and municipal officials throughout Washington County."
Samples of the end product, a series of web‑based maps that will be able to model the effects of storm surges for specific communities, were demonstrated at the meetings. Johnson explains, "The model makes predictions for eight scenarios, including high and mean tide for categories 1 through 4. We will produce eight more scenarios that add three feet of water as a crude mimic of sea-level rise for long-term planning."
The team's data used for the storm surge scenario models include high‑precision LIDAR (light detection and ranging) elevation data and the National Weather Service's (NWS) SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricane) model output for the state of Maine.
Both women stress that they are not using data from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps. Such maps are outdated and inaccurate, Johnson says. "We've been grappling with challenges related to flood planning and conservation of flood‑prone areas for many years without accurate maps, and we're not slated to get new FEMA maps until 2016. Many landowners in the area have spent good money for surveys showing how the FEMA maps are inaccurate on their properties, and many municipalities have struggled to comply with state zoning laws without imposing unnecessary regulation on incorrectly‑mapped areas. FEMA needs to do a better job with flood mapping, and until they do, we can't use their maps to make accurate predictions about floods."
In addition Johnson notes that the NWS "provides mapping products and guidance that can help us make more precise predictions in real world situations. One of the next steps we'll take will be helping the county incorporate these resources into emergency protocols. We're also looking into being able to run the NWS's SLOSH model ourselves with different storm tracks and sea level rise, but currently we don't have that capability."
Both women recently attended a New England Climate Summit sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency in Providence, R.I. East says of the experience, "It was very affirming to hear that while many New England coastal communities are asking themselves where to start in the development of climate vulnerability assessments, Tora could report that we are already preparing them for our region. Representatives from all six New England states agreed with our approach of vetting the information with emergency managers and first responders. Many also confirmed that our efforts to provide the information online are especially important."
UMM students who have worked on the project include Amy Dowley, Meghan Cranford, Jake Rottersman, Christopher Federico and Thomas Cochran. Funders include U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Maine Coastal Program. Technical assistance and/or data have come from the Maine Office of GIS, Maine Geological Survey and the National Weather Service. The 3D software used for the model is from Blue Marble Geographics, a Maine company, which has provided technical assistance and free upgrades for the project. Esri Inc. has provided the analysis software and web capabilities.