PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Sea levels will rise in Rhode Island by as much as 5 feet as climate change reshapes the coastline over the next century, the state’s top coastal resource official told lawmakers Thursday.

In a grim presentation to a legislative panel, Coastal Resources Management Council Director Grover Fugate warned the state can also expect to see more strong coastal storms like – or stronger than – Superstorm Sandy, which damaged homes, devastated dunes and carried off tons of sand from the state’s southern coast last year.

Fugate said the state must begin work now on ways to prepare for the effects of higher sea levels, which he said will pose a threat to coastal communities, private property, roads, water supplies and sewer systems.

“The times, they are changing,” Fugate said. “We’ve got a real issue here. Not just in Rhode Island but nationwide.”

Sea levels have already risen by 10 inches in less than a century, and the pace has increased. A study this year from the University of Rhode Island predicted sea levels will rise 3 to 5 feet over 1990 levels by 2100.

“If I was a betting man I’d say five or six (feet),” Fugate said. The exact amount of the rise will depend on a variety of components, including the rate of melting of the polar ice caps, behavior of ocean currents and geological factors, he said.

Fugate showed lawmakers photos of Rhode Island’s southern coast from the 1980s that showed wide beaches separating beach cottages and bars from the ocean. He then showed photos taken more recently, including some from the days after Superstorm Sandy, showing waves lapping at the building’s foundations.

Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston and the chairman of the committee that reviewed the forecasts, said many people remain skeptical about climate change. He said public dialogue is a necessary part of the state’s preparation. He called Thursday’s presentation “sobering.”

“We need to continue to help people understand what the realities are,” he said. “We need to get people ready for this. We need to pass laws or regulations.”

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