Rising sea levels caused by global climate change could have a serious effect on towns in midcoast Maine, according to research presented by Cam Adams ’14 at the “Changing Tides: Perspectives on Sea Level Rise” panel last week. 

Since hearing about the research last year, midcoast community officials in Bath and Bowdoinham have launched further analyses of the data. 

Organized by Courtney Payne ’15, Anna Hall ’15, and Margaret Lindeman ’15, the November 14 panel looked at the potential effects of sea level rise as a result of climate change on the international, state and local levels. 

The panel featured Professor of Government Allen Springer, geologist Peter Slovinsky from climate-focused consulting firm Catalysis Adaptation Partners, and Adams, an earth and oceanographic studies major.  

Adams presented work he had done last fall with Hannah Glover ’13, Liza LePage ’13 and Daniel Lesser ’14 in Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a 200-level Environmental Studies class taught by adjunct lecturer Eileen Johnson.

The project, titled “Coastal Resiliency,” looked at potential effects of rising sea levels on the communities of Bath, Topsham, and Bowdoinham. 

Using GIS and NE LiDAR, a remote sensing system that uses light to gauge distance, the students simulated rising sea levels to determine which parts of the towns would be submerged.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a global rise in sea level of two feet in the next 50 to 100 years, a number the students used as a basis for their approximations.

“We tried to get on either end of that, looking at the lesser impact of that and then going higher just to see what it would look like at six feet,” said Adams.

With a two-foot rise, much of the midcoast area’s coastal infrastructure and many roads and bridges would be affected.

Of the three towns, they determined that Bath faced the greatest threat while Topsham would be the least affected. 

The industrial hub of Bath Iron Works shipyard could be affected by even a two-foot rise, while the increase could damage close to 250 buildings in the town. A storm surge could double this number, affecting upwards of 600 buildings.

Johnson pointed out that rising sea levels partnered with an increase in storm-surge flooding due to global warming could have a compounded and more destructive effect.

“We may be seeing these more intense storms more and more, and how prepared are we?” asked Johnson.

The students’ project focused specifically on storm surges as a potential threat.

 “The impact of sea level rise itself will take a long time to have a big impact, but it is when those smaller storms start to have a more of an impact with sea level rise that the potential concern is more pressing,” said Lesser.

Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Earth and Oceanographic Science Phil Camill pointed out that people along the waterfront are already beginning to feel these effects.

“They’re seeing sea level rise as something that’s real,” Camill said.

To some extent, the steep and rocky coastline of Maine helps to  marginalize the effects of rising sea level. 

But Adams pointed out that the towns of Bowdoinham, Bath, and Topsham are not actually on the open coast and are thus more vulnerable.

“When you have these channels with rising seas, there’s actually even more of an effect than just along the open coast because of the way in which the ocean is funneled into these estuaries,” said Adams.

Although their research focused solely on the potential effects of sea level rise—not on concrete steps for mitigation—Adams and Lesser met with six town officials from the three communities to discuss addressing these potential threats. 

Johnson said that since then, Bowdoinham officials have begun updating their comprehensive plan to incorporate information about the impact of possible rising sea levels. 

Bath has seriously considered the results of the study as well, commissioning a more detailed economic analysis of the potential effects of rising sea levels on their community, according to Johnson.

“Looking at how there’s this dynamic between local people, the town planners, and the state planners or the government agencies, there’s often a lack of cooperation and resources and Bowdoin can kind of fill that gap,” said Lesser.

While admitting that their analyses were fairly basic, Adams points out that the town officials were glad to have any kind of projection.

“I think that they were interested in knowing how much of an issue it is for their respective towns,” said Lesser.

Adams did say that while Bowdoin students and faculty are investigating rising sea levels in Midcoast Maine, Bowdoin College itself is not threatened.

“We’re not going to be underwater in the near future,” he said.