A Brainstorm before the Superstorm

Rye Residents Discuss How to Prepare for Climate Change 

Rye resident Peter Crawford stood up in the middle of the Rye, New Hampshire Junior High School gym and seconded a motion on the floor. He was at the town’s annual Deliberative Session on February 1st, held prior to the Town Election in March, and he was asking his fellow community members to vote to allocate money in the town budget so they could better understand how sea level rise would affect their oceanfront town. A lengthy discussion ensued, but the motion was ultimately withdrawn due to legal concerns.

Luckily, it turned out someone else was ahead of the game. “We learned that the town had applied for grant money to do something similar. It’s great we didn’t need to spend the town’s money, but it would have been interesting to see the results of the vote,” Crawford said.

The grant application was organized by Kim Reed, Rye’s Planning and Zoning Administrator, through an opportunity with the funders New Hampshire Coastal Program and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, and expert facilitators from University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, New Hampshire Sea Grant, and Rockingham Planning Commission (RPC).  The grant was intended to help communities learn more about climate change impacts like sea level rise and more intense coastal storms and potential strategies to help reduce their risks and vulnerability. Rye was awarded the grant, and Reed, along with its partners, kicked off the project with a public workshop on April 1st. Over the course of four workshops, Rye residents, led by a citizen steering committee, will develop a vision for how to incorporate climate change considerations into existing town investment decisions, infrastructure projects, and plans. Parallel to these workshops, the RPC will be making new information available about sea level rise and coastal flood risks in Rye and other New Hampshire communities through their Tides to Storms project.

The time is right

Among the 35 residents at the first meeting was Rye’s Police Chief and Director of Emergency Management Kevin Walsh. He explained that his dual role makes it especially important for him to think about how changes in natural storms impact public safety.

“I have to think about evacuating the town. I have to think about whether my emergency personnel are going to have to leave to evacuate their own families,” Walsh said.

Reed explained that Rye town staff had been ready to work on climate issues for a couple of years, but until now, residents weren’t quite motivated enough to commit. Now that a few neighboring communities like Portsmouth, Exeter, Durham, and Seabrook have gone through these types of planning processes, Rye residents are ready to take the plunge.

“People have started talking about climate change in cocktail conversations. They’re reading about it in local newspapers,” Reed said. “So they’ve started asking what we’re doing about it. The timing is right.”

A threat multiplier

The April 1st meeting began with climate science 101 delivered by Dr. Cameron Wake, a UNH researcher and author of several regional climate impact assessments. He explained that sea levels have historically risen 0.7 inches per decade in New Hampshire and are expected to rise two to five more feet by 2100. Extreme storm events have become more frequent and are expected to double by 2050, and average annual precipitation will likely increase between 15 and 20 percent. Not to mention heat—depending on greenhouse gas emissions, New Hampshire summers could feel as hot as North Carolina summers by 2100 as seasonal temperatures rise.

Wake emphasized that these projected impacts ultimately mean that Rye residents should think about climate change as a threat multiplier. “Climate change isn’t necessarily the ‘be all end all’ on its own. Rather, it sits on top of a whole lot of existing threats.”

In other words, climate change places additional pressure on vulnerabilities that already exist in a community like weak infrastructure and patchy communication networks. With this in mind, meeting participants went to work brainstorming what they perceived as threats within their community that would be worsened by increased temperatures, higher seas, additional rainfall, and stronger storms. They considered the possible impacts on everything from communication to beach size, tax revenue, and even emotional well-being. Though discussions focused on threats, participants weren’t without optimism: one resident ventured to hope that dealing with these challenges might bring her community closer together.

The second public workshop will take place May 5 at Rye Junior High School at 6:30pm. All Rye residents are encouraged to participate; previous workshop attendance is not necessary. For more information visit the town of Rye’s Preparing for Climate Change website.

The funds for this project were made available by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Coastal Program through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.



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