Bowdoin College researchers predict impact of rising sea level on Harpswell, Brunswick

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HARPSWELL — For generations, the Abenaki carried their boats from Harpswell Cove to Middle Bay across a narrow point of Harpswell Neck.

Now a new study identifies that low-lying marsh, and the intersection of Route 24 and Coombs Road along Buttermilk Cove, as two of the most vulnerable areas to sea-level rise and flooding.

The findings are part of a study recently published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science and co-authored by recent Bowdoin College students Maryellen Hearn and Krista Bahm; college Director of Environmental Studies Phil Camill, and Program Manager Eileen Johnson.

Their study, called “Using a boundary organization approach to develop a sea level rise and storm surge impact analysis framework for coastal communities in Maine,” predicts potential future impacts of sea-level rise and storm surge on coastal Harpswell and Brunswick, makes recommendations for protecting vulnerable areas, and examines the role of colleges and universities in helping towns prepare for these changes.

The researchers decided to focus the study locally after realizing that places like Harpswell and Brunswick had, for many reasons, been overlooked by other studies.

“Most of the impact planning work has been focused on, as you can suspect, large metropolitan areas, or areas of large economic significance,” Camill said. “There’s a preconception that the steep rocky shorelines of New England make this region relatively safe compared to flat sandy beaches.”

But that’s not necessarily the case, especially for Harpswell, which has more coastline than most other towns in Maine.

Here, a two-meter sea-level rise combined with a 1.3-meter storm surge could flood parts of both Route 123 and Route 24, the study says, cutting off access to the town. Flooding could result in the loss of up to $140 million in coastal land, damage to piers and wharves, and disruption of the marine-based economy.

Camill is quick to point out that this is a worst-case scenario, and one that is unlikely to occur for close to a hundred years.

“We have plenty of time to deal with these things,” he said, “so the question is getting these roads and bridges on the maintenance schedules. … They’re probably going to have to be upgraded to deal with these potential changes.”

Mary Ann Nahf, chairwoman of the town Conservation commission, said she had yet to see the study, but attended a student presentation in fall 2010 on the results, which she called “dramatic.”

“We looked at (the findings) and we said OK, now what can we do with it? As a Conservation Commission, we weren’t getting into infrastructure … but we were thinking it could have ramifications to the marine economy.”

So last year, the commission was involved with a follow-up Bowdoin study that more closely examined the impact of sea-level rise and storm surge on clam flats and marshes.

Nahf said the town hasn’t done anything concrete with the findings because the potential impacts are so far out in the future.

Camill was realistic about what Brunswick and Harpswell may, or may not, do with the study. At least, he said, it’s a good learning tool for the students.

Sometimes, when students work with local communities on projects, he said there can be “a little bit of idealism, like ‘Why aren’t we changing these things, why aren’t things being fixed?’ And I think they get to see these real-world constraints that local towns face.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

The intersection of Route 24 and Coombs Road in Brunswick may be vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise and storm surge, according to Bowdoin College researchers.

Route 123 passes through a low-lying marsh on the border of Brunswick and Harpswell. This area could be susceptible to flooding in the future if the sea level rises, according to Bowdoin College researchers.