Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides In Boston, scientists are predicting that climate change will lead to dramatic sea level rise, and more frequent flooding, around the city. Officials are studying the potential impact on roads and sewers and are asking waterfront developers to plan for increased flooding.
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Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides

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Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides

Boston Plans For 'Near-Term Risk' Of Rising Tides

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. And now to the NPR Cities Project.


BLOCK: One thing we've been talking about is resilient cities - resilient to a harsher environment and disasters that can come with it. Last week, we heard about challenge of an even hotter climate in Phoenix. Well, warmer temperatures are also a concern in places far from the desert, like Boston, Massachusetts.

And that's where we find Monica Brady-Myerov of member station WBUR. Monica, hi.


BLOCK: And apart from concerns about rising temperatures, what are some of the other things that Boston officials are worried about?

BRADY-MYEROV: Well, as you know, Boston is coastal, so flooding is a big concern. And scientists have looked at this and the models predict that sea levels around the city could rise dramatically. And if you put that with a storm surge and high tide, parts of the city could be under water.

BLOCK: So, parts of Boston under water. And I gather you are in one of those parts of Boston right now?

BRADY-MYEROV: Yes, I am. I'm in front of Faneuil Hall and this was Boston's first public market and it used to be waterfront property. But in the 1800s, Boston needed more room to grow for residences and homes, so they started filling in the marshes and mudflats along the wharf.

And looking now to my right too, I see City Hall and that's where I met Jim Hunt.

JIM HUNT: Now, today more than 50 percent of downtown Boston is filled tidelands.

BRADY-MYEROV: Hunt was Boston's Chief of Environmental and Energy Services and helped Boston create a comprehensive climate action plan. Hunt says it focuses both on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on adapting to the dangers of a warmer climate, such as heat waves, storms, and a rising sea.

HUNT: How do we prepare our residence and businesses for the impacts that we're already experiencing and that are sure to get more intensity and frequency, given the amount of carbon in the atmosphere?

BRADY-MYEROV: Regardless of the ongoing debate about climate change, Boston is calling the sea level rise a near-term risk. In New England, sea level is likely to rise higher than the global average. Projections for Boston range from a two to six feet increase by the end of the century, depending on how fast polar ice melts. Add to that a Hurricane storm surge and some projections show parts of Boston under 10 feet of water. And researchers have told the city that could happen as often as every two to three years by 2050. Boston is asking developers along the waterfront to plan for more frequent flooding.


BRADY-MYEROV: Should we go look at the tidal level first?


BRADY-MYEROV: Hubert Murray is manager of sustainable initiatives for Partners Healthcare, which is building a new rehabilitation hospital.

MURRAY: When Hurricane Irene came by last year and there was a high tide, it was within 12 to 18 inches of the top of the wharf here. And you can imagine what would happen if we have a 30 to 60 inch rise in the actual sea level, what that would do. This whole site would be awash.

BRADY-MYEROV: But it won't be because the building was designed to sit more than 12 feet above sea level. And all the patient rooms are on the upper floors. David Burson, senior project manager for the site, shows me around.

So we're in the guts of the building but we're not in the basement.

DAVID BURSON: The guts on the roof, yes. This is our mechanical electrical penthouse space. So this is where all of our chillers and boilers and air handling units are. And, as I mentioned...

BRADY-MYEROV: These systems are safer from flooding on the roof. Down in patient rooms, Burson shows off another feature, a design that stirred some debate within the company and involved a waiver from the health department. In each room, you can open a window in the event of a power outage.


BURSON: This is a bit tricky.


BURSON: There we go. So the keys are in. We just pull these latches, bottom and top, and push it out to just about four inches. And feel the fresh breeze coming in from the harbor.


BRADY-MYEROV: I've now come across the harbor to east Boston to meet some residents who live along the water, in a publically-funded housing project. And we're standing right at the point where the rising level of the sea will have an impact. And several of these residents know it.

MAGDALENA AYED: My name is Magdalena Ayed, A-Y-E-D.

BRADY-MYEROV: And you have a stunning view of downtown Boston.

AYED: It's gorgeous. I mean, any time you can come out to the pier here, and everyday, I mean it looks different.

BRADY-MYEROV: She likes to walk her kids to the dock to watch the tides. The tides amuse her kids, but the rising tide is a concern to her.

AYED: I worry about it, as an adult. You know, we're in a position where, you know, we get subsidized housing because the situation we're in, my husband doesn't make enough money. He has a heart condition, so forth. I love this place but sometimes I think about 10 years from now. You know, I read a lot and I've read the reports how this part of Boston will be basically under water in 30 or 50 years. I don't exactly what they predicted when. But I think about that. You know, what are our options? Where will we go?

BRADY-MYEROV: Ayed wishes the city would talk to its residents about rising sea levels and let them know what they should do.

So far, Boston is essentially studying the dangers and the possible effects of flooding on sewers and roads. They're also undertaking a major environmental restoration project on the Muddy River, to control flooding. They are looking at the big systems, in the hopes of preventing flooding in housing projects in east Boston or in million-dollar condominiums in the Back Bay.

TEDD SAUNDERS: I'm Tedd Saunders and I'm a resident of the historic Back Bay area of Boston.

BRADY-MYEROV: We're standing on Commonwealth Avenue. And under some projections this could be completely flooded. You could be in the Venice section of Boston. Have you thought about that?

SAUNDERS: I have. I think the Venice section of Boston, it makes it sound more romantic than it might be. There would be no way of getting around.

BRADY-MYEROV: Saunders is a consultant to hotels on how to be green. But he's just starting to think about adaptation.

SAUNDERS: I've been more focused on what I can do to slow, you know, as a consumer, as an individual, as a business person, what can I do to have a positive impact in slowing climate change. But we do need to think about adaptation because climate change is coming and it's just going to get more dramatic.

BRADY-MYEROV: What Tedd Saunders is thinking about in Boston's Back Bay is what's being called resilience thinking in many places. Boston is now giving the same priority to adaptation as it once did to climate change prevention. And according to a recent MIT study, more than half of American cities are also thinking about ways to becoming more resilient.

From the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Dartmouth Street in Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for the NPR Cities Project.

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