If sea levels rise six feet due to climate change, Waterplace Park in Providence and Wickford village would be swamped

Grover Fugate on Friday, August 23rd, 2013 in a TV interview

R.I. coastal official says rising sea levels from climate change could swamp Waterplace Park in Providence and Wickford village

A United Nations-supported panel of the world’s top climate scientists issued its latest assessment of the problem Friday, warning of potentially catastrophic consequences unless significant measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide.

Among other things, the report -- a summary of a longer study to be issued Monday -- warned that if emissions aren’t reduced, global sea levels could rise nearly three feet by 2100.

Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, expressed similar, and more dire, concerns during an interview on WPRI-Channel 12’s "Newsmakers" program, broadcast Aug. 23.

Fugate warned then that some projections showed sea levels rising as much as six feet over the next 100 years. If that happened, he said, some of the state’s signature landscapes, such as Providence’s Waterplace Park and North Kingstown’s Wickford Village could be very different -- and smaller --  by 2100.

"The upper end of that range is now looking like, more like, six feet," Fugate said. "Waterplace Park would essentially be gone … you look at places like Wickford, so the historic district in Wickford, a lot of that would be lost."

Waterplace Pond instead of Waterplace Park? Wickford swamped? Was that a deep thought or shallow reasoning? We decided to wade in.

Friday’s report from the climate panel is just the latest of numerous reports and studies of the effect of climate change on sea levels.

In December 2012,  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program and the Army Corps of Engineers prepared a report called "Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment."  

The report said that an increasing number of studies have shown satellite measurements indicating polar ice, mostly from Greenland in the north and western Antarctica in the south, has been melting more rapidly than was previously thought, in turn making sea levels rise faster and higher than past projections.  

The NOAA report warned the melting would increase sea levels, but the range it gave was higher than that described in Friday’s IPCC report.

"We have a very high confidence (a better than nine in ten chance) that global mean sea level will rise at least 0.2 meters (8 inches) and no more than 2 meters (6.6 feet) by 2100,"  the 2012 multi-agency assessment said.

Fugate said it was that "upper end" -- up to 6.6 feet -- that he was referencing.

The University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography’s Sea Grant program has been interested in rising sea levels too. The program works with the state’s coastal municipalities to anticipate where sea levels may rise and how to cope with it.

Jon Reiner, town planner in North Kingstown, said the Sea Grant staffers have analyzed what would happen in his community with the kind of sea-level rises Fugate cited. He said their analyses confirmed Fugate’s warning.

A 6-foot sea level increase, Reiner said, would inundate more than 150 parcels of land in the Wickford area, as much as 5 percent of the town. Teresa Crean, a planner with the URI Sea Grant program, said the value of that lost land was about $80 million.

In Providence, the effects of rising sea levels can be seen on a website of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that shows the foot-by-foot effects of rising sea levels. The interactive map doesn’t include storm surges or runoff, only what increases in sea level would do.

According to NOAA,  a 6-foot rise in sea level would submerge the walkway around the Waterplace Park pool and enough water would flow through the tunnel under Memorial Boulevard to put the Capital Grille and Bar Louie on their own waterfront.

But according to the NOAA, Waterplace Park might be the least of the city’s worries. Even more vulnerable are the wharfs off Allens Avenue in the area between Sassafras Point and Henderson Street. Parts of the newly cleared Route 195 redevelopment area would flood, as well as the neighborhood around the Providence District Court Building.

Our ruling

Grover Fugate said Providence’s Waterplace Park and Wickford village would be flooded if sea levels rose six feet, "the upper end" of some climate change estimates.

While Fugate’s high-end figure is double the estimate of the Intergovernmental Climate Change Committee, he was accurately quoting a figure that has been cited by four U.S.  agencies that deal with oceans and climate.

And federal, state and local planners and agencies agree that a six-foot rise would swamp significant locations in Providence, Wickford and elsewhere in coastal Rhode Island, as Fugate said it would.

We find his statement True