Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

New Institute Will Help Connecticut Communities Prepare for Rising Sea Levels

The Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation’s goal is to create real-world solutions for the growing risks that are being posed by climate change.

Areas along the Connecticut coast impacted by Hurricane Irene
Areas along the Connecticut coast were impacted by Hurricane Irene. Modeling shows a trend toward rising waters and more flooding. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

James O’Donnell pulls no punches. “The sea level is going to rise, that’s for sure,” said the professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut. “It has been rising for 10,000 years; it’s just accelerated recently. The biggest danger is that we don’t do anything.”

But Connecticut is doing something. Officials in the state, which has been bruised and battered in the past few years by storms both named — Sandy and Irene — and unnamed, announced the creation of the Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation in January.

It’s a collaborative effort among UConn, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and its goal is to create real-world solutions for the growing risks to both life and property that are being posed by climate change.

“In the U.S., many states are working to develop climate change policies, but as far as I know, this is the only one with a joint agreement between a major university and a state department of environmental protection,” said O’Donnell, the executive director of the institute. “The development of this relationship is kind of novel.”

The institute’s mission is also novel. O’Donnell put it this way: “Over the last few years, we’ve had our share of severe storms in Connecticut, and they will become more frequent. We also have limited resources. What are we going to do? That’s a big blank. The institute, in simple terms, is meant to fill in that blank.”

At the unveiling of the institute, which will be based at the university’s Avery Point Campus, Gov. Dannel Malloy said it will be “a world-class, leading-edge center that harnesses the research and outreach capabilities of UConn and the practical regulatory expertise of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“Our vision for this center is for people to roll up their sleeves [and] to have direct and ongoing contact with property owners and community leaders, to make sure we have the tools and knowledge and financing that they need to take the necessary steps” to prepare for rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.

The issue of climate change may be considered controversial in other parts of the country, but in Connecticut, both sides of the political aisle follow the science. And that’s “unequivocal,” said the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

According to the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program (Sea Grant is a national partnership between universities and NOAA), climate change will afflict the state with projected sea-level increases associated with a warming global climate, which will cause greater flooding, erosion and impacts from storm surges, potentially degrading wetlands and causing more property damage.

The groundwork for the institute was set two years ago. State Rep. James M. Albis, who said his district was devastated by the recent storms, is chairman of the General Assembly’s Shoreline Preservation Task Force, which was formed in 2012, after Irene, to propose studying how climate change will affect the Connecticut shoreline. “We came out with recommendations in January 2013,” he said, which included the formation of a think tank such as this.

“We did not expect it to come to fruition so quickly,” Albis said. “That happened thanks to a $2.5 million settlement of plea agreement the state won from Unilever Home and Personal Care USA for clean water violations. The Connecticut Sea Grant Coastal Storm Awareness program chipped in another $610,000, and $425,000 more comes from a federal grant to enhance coastal resilience in Connecticut. That should keep the institute humming for about three years.”

According to the university, the institute has the following goals and objectives:

  • Improve scientific understanding of the changing climate and its local and regional impacts on coastal and inland floodplain communities;
  • Develop and deploy natural science, engineering, legal, financial and policy best practices for climate resilience;
  • Undertake or oversee pilot projects designed to improve resilience and sustainability along Connecticut’s coast and inland waterways;
  • Create a climate-literate public that understands its vulnerabilities to a changing climate and uses that knowledge to make scientifically informed, environmentally sound decisions;
  • Foster resilient and sustainable communities — particularly along the Connecticut coastline and inland waterways — that can adapt to the impacts and hazards of climate change;
  • Enhance the resilience of critical infrastructure; and
  • Reduce loss of life and property, ecological damage and social disruption from storms.

“The target audience is communities,” O’Donnell said. He expects community leaders to bring their specific problems and most pressing priorities to state and local politicians, who will then ask the institute’s scientists to do applied research to come up with actionable solutions.

“One of the major problems we noticed on the task force was that municipalities are woefully underprepared for climate adaptation,” Albis said. “They have so many other issues to deal with, and they don’t have adequate staffing with knowledge of climate adaptation to pursue best practices. My hope is that the institute will be a source of education for municipal leaders and stakeholders about what their options are for coastal protection.”

Currently it’s far too early to tell how effective the institute will be, or even what its final form will be. Stakeholders have been meeting to introduce disparate research interests — engineers, political scientists, social scientists, environmental experts, economists, legal experts and others — to one another, so they could begin to collaborate on problems that touch all these issues.

“We all see the world fairly differently, from different perspectives, so the past three or four months we have come together to talk about how the institute would work and what kind of organizational chart is appropriate,” said Sylvain De Guise, associate director of the institute and director of the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program. “I like to use a house analogy: If this is like building a house, we have pretty much agreed on the blueprint. We are just starting to pour the foundation.”

Actual work was scheduled to begin in the spring, with two programs designed to reach out to coastal communities to get the conversation started, according to Juliana Barrett, associate extension educator for the Connecticut Sea Grant College Program. The first is called a Climate Adaptation Academy.

The Connecticut Sea Grant Program and UConn’s Center for Land Use Education and Research will partner with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Office of Long Island Sound Programs. They will work with municipalities and relevant professionals on current climate issues as well as climate change adaptation and resilience.

Another workshop, The Next Coastal Storm Preparation and Response: Coordinating and Improving Preparedness with Technology, will bring together municipal officials to discuss how towns can better respond to community needs before, during and after coastal storms by using GIS to coordinate and manage the response both locally and with the state emergency response system.

No one knows exactly how many coastal protection devices — such as seawalls, berms, breakwaters and the like — already exist along the state’s coast, so the institute will take an on-site inventory. Back in the office, O’Donnell and his team will work to develop computer models that better predict the joint effect of river- and sea-level flooding.

“If the rivers flood at the same time as a coastal storm surge hits, low-level communities can be flooded, but we don’t have a good model for that,” said O’Donnell, who also coordinates the Long Island Sound Integrated Coastal Observing System, which collects data to create models that predict processes in the Long Island Sound. 

O’Donnell expects to dedicate about 50 percent of his working time to the new institute. Although he doesn’t know just yet exactly what that work will entail over the next few years, he does know what the overall end product should be.

“We will be successful if we provide information to towns and municipalities about what is an appropriate response to climate change in different areas,” O’Donnell said. “At the moment there are no clear guidelines about this. Our role isn’t brokering decisions, it’s providing information. Not everyone will be happy with the outcomes. But if there is clarity, then everyone will be more efficient at least.”

Albis, whose district lost 25 homes to Irene, said, “Time will tell what is needed, but I am really excited for the prospects of this being able to help the community. I think the scope of the institute will be much greater than just along the coastline and will extend throughout the state. I am very excited to watch it blossom.”

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