Towards a Resilient Rhode Island:

Responding to climate change with leadership, innovation, and economic development

Climate Challenges

Climate change challenges facing Rhode Island are well summarized in the 2012 report of Rhode Island’s Climate Change Commission.

Rising Sea Levels: One of Rhode Island’s biggest assets and most prominent features, its coastline, is changing rapidly. The average sea level has risen 7 inches globally in the last century due to the greenhouse gas effect trapping heat in the atmosphere. The rate of sea level rise in the Northeast is increasing 3-4 times faster than the global average, thereby making Rhode Island particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. Since 1930, sea level has increased in Rhode Island by an average of 1 inch per decade. The Newport tide gauge has risen 10.6 inches between 1930 and 2011, with a reported 2.73 mm (.11 inch) sea level rise per year since 1930. By 2100, sea level in Rhode Island is expected to rise another 3 - 5 feet above 1990 levels.

Rising seas threaten properties, ecosystems, drinking water supplies, public health, and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and utilities. Rhode Island is the ocean state, with over 400 miles of coast line. Over 2,700 houses in Rhode Island are within 3 feet of mean high tide, which means they are currently at risk of flooding with even moderate storms, and under threat of permanent inundation by the end of the century. Yet coastal residents and property owners are not the only ones threatened. Destruction of public infrastructure can leave whole communities disconnected from goods, services, and employment, reducing the economic viability of the entire state. Further, when roads are flooded during storms, evacuation becomes more dangerous and costly.

Although erosion is a natural process, tourist beaches that are important to local economies must be continually maintained by importing sand. This is a yearly process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars after each storm. A temporary and expensive fix, sand importing has unpredictable results in protecting coastal property and unknown impacts on local ecosystems. When homes and infrastructure are threatened, the common response is to build hard protective structures such as seawalls - yet those too are prone to failure.

Learn More: Rhode Islands Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and RI Sea Grant have led state efforts to understand and respond to sea level rise.

Beach SAMP: To help communities protect people, property, and infrastructure (including drinking water supplies, utilities, and roadways), the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), with the University of Rhode Island, various state and local agencies, stakeholders, and coastal residents, is developing the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP). This plan will provide science-backed policies and planning tools to improve the state’s resilience.

River Flooding: With climate change increasing the severity and frequency of storms, Rhode Island will be faced with an increase of inland river flooding events. As Rhode Islanders learned during the floods of March 2010, flooding can be extremely damaging to homes, infrastructure, and the surrounding environment, bringing hardship to the citizens and economy of Rhode Island. River flooding can result from spring snow melts in combination with heavy rains, hurricanes or dam breeches. Rhode Island will become more vulnerable to the impacts of increased precipitation and river flooding in the upcoming years. Approximately 14% of Rhode Island’s 1,100 square miles of land area is flood-prone.

Rhode Island is vulnerable to flooding events due to a combination of factors. In addition to the worsening of storms and increases in precipitation due to climate change, flooding in Rhode Island is exacerbated by its built environment. The natural environment minimizes the risks and hazards presented by flooding events. Forested watersheds absorb water during storm events and release it slowly over time, reducing both the velocity and the volume of water that may impact a community. Vegetation removal and land development increase the vulnerability of Rhode Islanders to river flooding. Development within floodplains decreases the capacity of the natural environment to mitigate flooding; large areas of impervious surfaces prevent the water from seeping into the ground, forcing it to run along the surface, damaging homes, buildings, and crucial infrastructure.

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Heat waves: Over the last 100 years, summer temperatures in Providence have increased 3.3° F. As average temperatures continue to rise, Rhode Island will experience longer heat waves and a drastic increase in the number of extreme heat days. The annual number of hot days (over 90° F) is predicted to grow from about 5 today to about 50-60 by 2100. If we continue on our current emissions pathway, Rhode Island’s summers will resemble those of Georgia. Cities will experience 2-4 weeks of temperatures over 100° F during an average summer. Extreme heat can create economic hardship in our state. The costs of operating emergency cooling centers, increased demand air conditioning and electricity, and of developing emergency heat alert systems will pose an economic burden on Rhode Island. Increased energy consumption not only puts pressure to the electricity grid, but raises the emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases that are causing climate change in the first place.

Heat waves are particularly problematic for urban areas, where they bring an increased risk of heat-related deaths and illnesses. Development in cities means that buildings, roads, and impervious surfaces have replaced open land and vegetation. Materials such as concrete, brick, and asphalt are more effective at absorbing and retaining the sun’s energy than plants and vegetation. Buildings and vehicles also produce energy, which contributes to the warm temperatures of urban areas. By removing green areas, surfaces are no longer permeable and moist. These physical changes cause urban areas to become warmer than surrounding rural areas. This is known as the urban heat island effect.

Excessive heat stresses the human body’s physiological systems and can lead to heat stroke, dehydration, and even death. Heat stress can manifest in rashes, fainting, cramps, and exhaustion. High temperatures can stress the body’s ability to regulate temperature and blood pressure. Heat is responsible for dilating the blood vessels near the skin and causing the heart to pump faster in order to maintain blood pressure. As a result, the body can experience cardiovascular problems and decreased blood flow to the brain. Excessive sweating caused by heat can also result in salt and fluid loss, which leads to dehydration. Heat stroke can cause seizures, coma, and death.

Health Impacts

Respiratory: Climate change means warmer summers. Rising temperatures worsen air pollution and increase the number of “bad air days”. Pollutants released by vehicle tailpipes, power generation, factories, and other sources react with sunlight to form ozone smog. As temperatures rise, this process is intensified and ground level ozone is worsened. Ragweed and other allergens in the air also increase with climate change, as carbon dioxide levels contribute to increased plant pollen production. Warmer temperatures will also increase the length of allergy season, with earlier spring blooms and later frosts.

Populations exposed to smog and air pollution are at risk of suffering eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation. These include outdoor workers, children, the elderly, and those who exercise outside. As temperatures rise, people with respiratory and cardiovascular disease will also be at heightened risk. Long-term exposure to pollution increases sensitivity to allergens, triggers asthma attacks, and impairs lungs. A recent study by MIT showed that air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S.

Vector-borne: The threat posed by ticks and mosquitoes is already a concern for Rhode Islanders. Climate change will expand the range of vectors that carry and transmit diseases like Lyme disease, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and the West Nile virus. Warmer temperatures, longer summers, and changes in rainfall patterns will allow insects to become active for longer seasons and in wider areas. Global changes will continue to increase heat, precipitation, and humidity.

Mental health: Research has shown that climate change will also threaten our mental health. Millions of people are predicted to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological symptoms in response to the impacts of climate change. Extreme weather events such as droughts and heat waves have been shown to increase rates of anxiety and depression. Sea level rise and more intense storms displace communities and are associated with stress, depression, grief, and post-traumatic stress. After Hurricane Katrina, affected communities exhibited an increase in the rates of depression, domestic violence, and suicide. Long-term exposure to heat waves has been associated with an increase in interpersonal violence, anxiety, and depression.

As with other challenges, children, the elderly, the poor, and those with existing mental health conditions will be particularly vulnerable. Experts predict that an estimate 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events and incidents. As climate change continues to impact peoples’ homes and livelihoods, issues of mental health will become more relevant.

Vulnerable Infrastructure

Wastewater Treatment: Rhode Island’s 19 wastewater treatment facilities treat approximately 100 million gallons of sewage from homes and factories each day. The Rhode Island Climate Change Commission’s 2012 progress report on adaptation found that climate change puts Rhode Island’s wastewater infrastructure at risk due to sea-level rise, increasingly frequent and severe storm events, and increased precipitation and flooding. Since sewage treatment facilities are often located in floodplains and on shorelines, any flooding due to increased precipitation or a storm surge can cause untreated sewage to flow directly into our state’s beloved ponds, rivers, and bays. Sewage influx causes harmful aquatic blooms, disrupts marine environments, and increases human exposure to waterborne diseases. Septic systems, used by many Rhode Island residents, are likely to experience salt-water intrusion, as sea level rise raises the groundwater table. Salt-water intrusion, along with warming soil temperatures, makes the sewage treatment process less effective.

Drinking Water Supplies: Rhode Island sources 85% of its drinking water from surface reservoirs, which can be inundated with salt water by a storm surge. Our freshwater resources, essential to all Rhode Island residents, could become contaminated by the intrusion of saltwater due to sea level rise. Saltwater intrusion also threatens coastal wells in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Along with increasing precipitation, climate change can also bring about drought periods that limit access to drinking water and decrease agricultural output. The sewage outflow issues explained above can also threaten drinking water resources. It is estimated by SafeWater RI modeling that between now and 2022, Rhode Island will have to put $52.8 million toward repairing water utilities that are damaged by sea level rise, coastal and riverine flooding, and severe storms. The water supplies of Bristol County, Jamestown, and Newport are the most vulnerable in the state.

Energy Facilities: Energy facilities located along the coast, such as the Manchester Street Power station, are threatened by sea level rise, flooding, and storm damage. Flooded basements in buildings can cause power outages for whole communities. Additionally, Rhode Island’s maritime ports are crucial for coal and petroleum products that currently satisfy the state’s appetite for fossil fuels - yet these same ports are threatened with permanent inundation by sea level rise.