The Department of Homeland Security has partnered with the state of Maine for the first-ever study of the effects of climate change on energy, water, transportation and telecommunications systems.
While the project’s final report has not been completed, initial findings of the assessment in Maine suggest that climate change will continue to have a significant impact on critical infrastructure.
For instance, increased temperatures are affecting seasonal energy demands, straining the capacity of electrical transmission lines.
Increased precipitation linked to climate change is creating more surface runoff into lakes and also increases the salinity of coastal aquifers, which supply drinking water.
Transportation infrastructure – especially low-lying roads, marine terminals and rail lines – are being threatened by unexpected storm surges. Much of that infrastructure was built long before planners recognized climate change as an issue.
And higher global temperatures are requiring more cooling of wireless and cell tower equipment.
The project, largely conducted last year with cooperation from a host of state and local agencies, was part of the department’s annual Regional Resiliency Assessment Program, but the first to have a specific focus on climate change.
“One of the challenges we have is getting people to focus on the here and now,” said Caitlin Durkovich, assistant secretary for Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection, who has overseen the multi-agency effort. “When we have events like droughts or hurricanes, they are teachable moments that can highlight the need for action. Without them, the problem is not as acute.”
WORKSHOP MAY 7
The information gathered over the past year will be presented during a workshop May 7 in Portland, during which participants will learn about the current state of climate science, how it relates to Maine and about the best mitigation efforts.
Durkovich explained that climate change’s effects on what DHS calls “lifeline” infrastructure are interconnected but may not be entirely visible to the public.
The warning signs, however, have been mounting.
Last year, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that the Gulf of Maine is warming at a rate faster than 99 percent of the world’s ocean water.
Those rising temperatures, combined with ocean circulation patterns, have caused sea levels to rise in the Northeast at higher rates than other areas. A recent study by the University of Arizona showed that the waters off Portland rose at an unprecedented rate in 2009 and 2010.
Sea level rise contributes to beach erosion and coastal flooding, which in turn leads to deterioration of infrastructure.
Scientists agree that increased greenhouse gas emissions are playing a major role in global warming, but even if emissions decreased dramatically, the effects would not necessarily reverse.
“I think we’re starting to have a better sense of what is happening,” said Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland and one of about three dozen across the state who participated in the Homeland Security climate change project. “The most important thing is: How do you adapt existing infrastructure? How do you keep the sewers going and the trains running? All those basic things need to work.”
George MacDonald, sustainability coordinator for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said he was impressed with the project because it’s the first time so many different agencies – public and private, state and local – have come together on addressing climate change.
His agency first developed a state climate change plan in 2004 and updated it four years ago. That plan was shared as part of the Homeland Security project.
“Most communities in Maine acknowledge that things are changing and they need to do something,” he said. “The real issue will be establishing priorities.”
Climate change and its underlying cause are still a polarizing political issue at the national level, but the Department of Homeland Security – acting on an executive order signed in 2013 by President Obama – has shifted focus toward climate change effects.
Durkovich said most people think of Homeland Security as the department responsible for protecting the country from terrorism, but it is also tasked with assessing any threats or hazards that can disrupt operations or critical functions.
“I think that part of our role here in government is to help raise awareness about the impact of a changing climate on these systems,” she said. “And not just the threats and hazards of today but what the world will look like in 60 or 70 years.”
The agency identifies regional resiliency assessment projects every year, depending on funding. There have been 59 projects since the program was launched in 2009.
GROUNDWORK IN MAINE
Durkovich said Maine was an easy choice for the first-ever project on climate change because so much work already was being done in that area.
The University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, in particular, has been researching the effects of climate change for more than a decade.
Sean Birkel, a research assistant professor at the climate change institute, said the work that has been done over the last year will help communities better understand the challenges that lie ahead.
“We know that climate boundary conditions are changing,” he said. “We can’t provide all the answers yet, though.”
Whatever communities do to adapt to the effects of climate change, the costs are certain to be considerable.
“If we fully adapt, that’s a huge investment. This needs to be done over time,” MacDonald said. “We need to prioritize where to best utilize our limited resources.”
Added Needelman: “We need to invest smartly. We need to know that if we develop something on the waterfront, will it work if or when sea levels are three feet higher.”
Already, city planners have been keeping a close eye on certain areas – such as Bayside in Portland – that could see a glut of development in the next several years.
Durkovich said there is no question that there needs to be significant reinvestment in infrastructure, not just in Maine but across the country.
“We have a lot of systems that were built 100 or 150 years ago, at a time when no one had any idea about climate change,” she said.