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Coastal infrastructure in the state of Maine at risk as early as 2030

Without significant action, Bath Iron Works and many other key sites along Maine's coast could be flooded every other week by 2050, according to a new report. Press Herald archive photo by Gabe Souza

Maine doesn't have to wait long before it loses valuable coastal infrastructure due to flooding.

Forget spring tides and storm surges. A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that, under business as usual, critical infrastructure will already be at risk from sunny-day flooding caused by rising sea levels.

“Even without storms or heavy rains, climate change-induced flooding is increasing along U.S. coasts,” the report concludes. “It is becoming increasingly clear that much of the United States' coastal infrastructure was built for a climate that no longer exists.”

Sea levels in Maine are rising faster than ever before, with record highs recorded along the Maine coast in 2023 and 2024. According to the Maine Climate Council, sea levels in Maine will rise about 18 inches by 2050 and 47 inches by 2100, assuming we make some reductions in global emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists report includes three different projections for sea level rise by 2100: 1.6 feet (48 cm) with significant emissions reductions, 3.2 feet (107 cm) with future emissions reductions (assuming moderate risks, as the Maine Climate Council does), and 6.5 feet (201 cm) if current emissions rates are maintained.

In a future where things continue as before, the report identifies at least six buildings at risk. These include a power station (Brunswick Hydro), a post office (Trevett), two sewage treatment plants (Noblesboro and Saco) and two polluted industrial sites in Bath. In just six years, these buildings are expected to flood every two weeks.

In the analysis, critical infrastructure is defined as facilities that perform functions necessary for maintaining daily life – such as schools, police stations or post offices – or that could pose a danger to society in the event of flooding, such as contaminated industrial sites, so-called brownfield sites.

The number of sites at risk of flooding every two weeks in a scenario of unchanged emissions increases to eleven by 2050. In addition, there is a complex of social housing, a brownfield site, a sewage treatment plant, a post office and Bath Iron Works.

By 2100, the number of places flooded every other week due to high emissions increases to 64 in 31 cities. These include two city halls (Machias and Long Island), the Bath Police Department, the Lincolnville and Bath Fire Departments, and the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.

Some owners and regulators of at-risk sites in Maine are already taking steps to prepare for rising sea levels.

“As a shipyard on a major coastal river in Maine, Bath Iron Works monitors the risks of flooding and rising sea levels,” parent company General Dynamics wrote in its 2023 Sustainability Report. “Bath Iron Works has incorporated predicted flood levels into its future facility plans.”

In the case of BIW, it is not only a major regional employer and taxpayer, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is also one of the most at-risk infrastructure sites in the state of Maine that releases toxic chemicals and pollutants.

On a much smaller scale, Portland businesses in a building on Marginal Way that will be hit by flooding every other week by 2100 believe they will be protected by the giant storage tanks the city has built beneath the ball fields at nearby Back Cove Park. Knee-deep flooding has forced them to close before.

The report calls on the state and its coastal communities to adapt and build resilience before it is too late.

Maine does not have as many vulnerable coastal infrastructure assets as other U.S. states because infrastructure is not as developed, said report author Erika Spanger, director of strategic climate analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy Program.

But a review of the list shows that Maine faces coastal infrastructure risks earlier than many other states and therefore has less time to begin the lengthy – and often costly – process of planning, implementing and financing its resilience efforts, Spanger said.

As the threat of flooding to Maine's aging infrastructure increases in the coming decades, Spanger called on policymakers and the public to take urgent action to prepare communities and drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels, which are the root cause of the climate crisis.

Global warming due to the production of heat-trapping gases from the use of fossil fuels leads to the expansion of sea water and the melting of land ice, which in turn causes sea levels to rise.

Anna Harden

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