‘Bristol will have a new shape’

Sea level rise will inundate homes and roads, create Poppasquash Island

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Independence Park will be gone. The Thames Street business district and parts of Hope Street will be under water. Residents in one of the wealthiest sections of town will need to hop on a ferry every day to reach their homes on the new Poppasquash Island.

Those are just some of the impacts facing Bristol as climate change-fueled sea level rise continues its inevitable march onward. More than 100 homes in Bristol will be inundated, according to the state Division of Planning, displacing hundreds of residents. Heavily traveled roads, including parts of Hope Street, Wood Street and Ferry Road will need to be rerouted, or bridges will need to be built as new waterfront property is created.

“The biggest impacts to Bristol will be downtown, Silver Creek and Poppasquash,” said Diane Williamson, Bristol’s Community Development Director. “Transportation routes are going to be underwater. Basically, it will be creating new peninsulas. The map will look different; Bristol will have a new shape. It’s going to be pretty dramatic.”

It’s all going to be happening sooner than many people think — by the end of the current century, in fact. And the impacts will be felt long before that as seas steadily rise over time due to climate change, which is steadily melting ice in Antarctica, Greenland and across the Arctic. That forces municipal planners like Ms. Williamson to begin working now on potential solutions for her successors decades down the line.

“We like to say we’re planning to plan,” Ms. Williamson said, noting the difficulty in encouraging the political will to spend money on a problem that’s not immediate. “There are short-term needs and short-term requirements to address today, so it’s hard to make decisions on the future. But the challenge is it seemed like it was a further-off scenario. Now, we’re learning it could be much quicker than we think.”

It also is expected to be much worse than anyone thought. Ms. Williamson has been using a “StormTools” map created by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, Coastal Resources Management Council and others. The interactive map allows users to plug in an address and learn what sea level rise will do to the area at 1 foot, all the way up to 7 feet, which will have catastrophic effects on some areas of Bristol.

The problem is the seas are going to be even higher than previously thought. A recent assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects sea-level rise to increase in Rhode Island by 9 feet, 10 inches by 2100.

In Bristol, that means more inundated roads, more new peninsulas, a greater push inland of marsh lands like those around Guiteras School, which will also be on its own island by the end of the century. Even at just 1 foot of rise, the town will feel the impact, Ms. Williamson said, as marshy wetlands expand around the coastal waters. Most of Poppasquash is already cut off from the rest of town, all of the Mill Pond area is inundated, and students at Guiteras School will be protected by a moat.

As the waters continue to rise, the problems continue to worsen. By the time 7 feet is reached — well before the year 2100 — homes and businesses on Thames Street will be gone; North Farm and the Audubon Education Center will be inundated; the town’s entire Eastern coastline will be reshaped; and most of Ferry Road will be under water.

While there’s likely nothing can be done to stop the inevitable rise of the seas at this point, municipal leaders can start preparing for the grim reality now, Ms. Williamson said. Mainly, planners are considering higher seas when planning construction projects and anticipating the impact on transportation routes. Ms. Williamson has asked the state Department of Transportation to take higher sea levels into account when planning for future bridge repairs and/or replacement, especially the Silver Creek and Mill Creek bridges.

Planning is about all municipal leaders can do at this point, but it is something that must be taken into account now, she said.

“The hard part is it’s expensive and it feels out of reach so it gets put in the too-expensive-to-do pile,” Ms. Williamson said. “But it’s not something we can ignore.”

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