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Rising Sea Levels Push Woods Hole Science Community to Prepare for Change

The Marine Biological Laboratory supply department building during the Hurricane of 1938.

Three world-renowned science institutions in Woods Hole are preparing their ocean-front facilities for the threats of climate change and will soon release an adaptation plan. 


Scientists, policymakers, and business leaders discussed the effects sea level rise, storm surge, and erosion could have on the area in the southern tip of Falmouth during a two-part symposium hosted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), and NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). 


A soon-to-be-released report by the Woods Hole Group warns that by the end of the century, 50 acres of the Woods Hole community may be lost to wetland migration, and large expanses of existing wetlands north of Eel Pond could return to the sea. In that time frame, the Woods Hole Group found, 66 percent of the institutional assets identified in the study could experience nuisance flooding, which would interfere with normal use of research facilities. 


If Woods Hole experiences a four-foot sea level rise by 2100 as projected, the science institutions, along with businesses and homes would be seriously impacted, if not completely lost. 


“Model projections also indicate that the coastal storm surge from a ‘1 percent probability event’ by 2050 could adversely affect 80 percent of evaluated assets owned by WHOI, 87 percent of MBL’s, and 93 percent of NEFSC’s,” according to a draft summary of findings. 


Rob Munier, vice president of Marine Operations at WHOI,  described the findings as “sobering,” but said the three Woods Hole research institutions are uniquely prepared to take on the challenge. 


“This is a unique place with fantastic attributes: geography, intellectual horsepower, passion, and community,” he said. “And besides the enormity of this challenge, sea level rise is really an opportunity of sorts.”


For example, a dock at one waterfront complex could be rebuilt as a floating structure, he said, so it can adapt to rising water levels.


All three instutions have indicated that they have no intention of leaving Woods Hole, so they are focused on ways to adapt to the coming changes.  


Kirk Bosma, a coastal engineer for the Woods Hole Group who’s designing the adaptation plan, told community members he recommend ways to protect, migrate, and transform institutional assets within Woods Hole in a full vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan that’s expected to be released by October 15. Adaptation plans, he said, could also apply to homeowners. 


“In some cases it may be, ‘You can stay there, but you’re not going to have a grass yard anymore. It might be a salt marsh,’” he said. “You can be that way. And it’s just a different mindset and different way of thinking, and it’s an opportunity for connecting with water in a different way.”  


The Woods Hole Group, Bosma assured one commenter, often does work with individual homeowners on efforts to elevate and floodproof their properties. By 2030, sea levels in Woods Hole village could rise by a foot and a half, so these efforts could be needed sooner rather than later. 


It’s this kind of collaboration and problem solving that inspired Nicole Cabana of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. 


“Until this study we only knew about our vulnerability abstractly,” she said. “We knew we were at risk someday, but we didn’t know which of our buildings or which parts of our infrastructure were most at risk, and we didn’t know about the risk throughout our community. So this study has given us concrete information that we can make informed decisions with.” 


Earlier in the day, local, state, and federal lawmakers discussed climate change challenges and opportunities on a policy level. 


“Sea level rise is one of the most profound and complicated issues facing our world over the next century,” U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, whose district includes the area, said in pre-recorded remarks. “That’s why we must take steps now to ensure that communities like Woods Hole have a resilient infrastructure, an infrastructure they need to be able to continue their vital roles into the future.”  


Already, the town of Falmouth is re-envisioning the future of the nearby Surf Drive neighborhood, where town services to homeowners could be discontinued in the next 30 years, and the road could be abandoned by 2070. It’s all part of a larger effort to catch up with other coastal towns and prepare the community for a wetter future that’s regularly disrupted by the impacts of climate change. 


“There are going to be some folks who say, ‘This is my home, it’s the most meaningful piece of property I own, it’s the culmination of all of my life’s work. And you’re telling me that you’re no longer going to… protect the infrastructure that protects my home,’” said Megan English Braga, chair of the Falmouth Select Board. 


“Those are going to be hard conversations.”



Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.