USM students hope Portland trail creates a wave of awareness about sea-level rise

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PORTLAND — Students at the University of Southern Maine will unveil a temporary trail downtown with some big ambitions.

The King Tides Trail, which will officially open on Dec. 8 and remain in place until Jan. 23, is a four-mile trail from Bayside to the Old Port. And while it will be a trail for pedestrians and bicyclists, it also has a much loftier goal: to raise awareness of sea level change by showing where a potential rise would occur in downtown Portland.

More than a dozen students from a special topics course titled “Shaping the Terrain: Sea Level Change in Casco Bay,” participated in the project, and have been installing the trail since Nov. 19.

“We’re working from a citizen scientist point of view, but also from an art point of view,” USM art professor Jan Piribeck said.

The trail is marked by red “whiskers” that represent the potential water’s edge if the sea level rises by three feet. Piribeck said a three-foot rise is based on a projection from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, based on the highest high tide in 2014.

She called it a “zone of probability” that suggests Maine should prepare for anywhere from a two- to six-foot rise over the century. She said research and projections show there is “almost 100 percent chance” some amount of sea level rise will happen within a century.

“We’re trying to provide an alternative path for people interested in the environment and environmental change, and how nature comes together with the urban environment,” Piribeck said. 

Students designed the trail using GPS and inundation maps to determine sea-level rise locations. Students also received consultation from coastal geologist Peter Slovinsky of the Maine Geological Survey.

Along the trail there are blue poles, which Piribeck called “beacons,” that light up using solar lamps, and have scannable codes that allow smart phone users to plot their location on  a Google map. The class made up names for several spots on the trail, like Knudson Pond, behind the UHaul on Marginal Way, and Midtown Lagoon, in the vacant lot behind Trader Joe’s.

Piribeck said the class used “creative nonfiction to label places that are temporary, but still exist.”

She said the project is an offshoot of another called Envisioning Change, which looks at sea level change over 200 years. Envisioning Change is a Digital Humanities project funded through the University of Maine’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund.

Piribeck said a women’s history trail also provided inspiration. “It would be interesting to have alternative trails for people with special interests,” she said, describing trails like these as “layers that go over landmark trails.”

Students gained experience at mapping, field work, and laboratory research.

“This is about raising public awareness of sea level change,” Piribeck  said. “We’re not telling people what to do with the information.”

The King Tides Trail installation is approved by the city’s Student Art Review Committee and permitted by the city. A $2,000 grant for supplies came from the Limulus Fund at the Maine Community Foundation through the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, which coordinates the Gulf of Maine King Tides Project.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Red whiskers placed in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood by University of Southern Maine students suggest where the tide line would be if sea level rose by three feet.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or