Until I recently read a white paper concerning local climate adaptation, I simply didn’t focus on the financial cost of ignoring the effects of climate change on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s downright eye-opening—unless you choose to look the other way and believe that the current cycle is just an inconvenient phase.
My source is a clearly written and well-researched document entitled Prioritizing Local Climate Adaptation through Regional Collaboration on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, prepared for the Eastern Shore Climate Adaptation Partnership by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC). Though I am a board member, the white paper is readily available on the ESLC website.
The facts are alarming. Scientists project sea level rise in the Chesapeake region of 2.1 feet by 2050 and 3.7 to 5.7 feet later in the 21st century. “Nuisance flooding” created by chronic tides affects large portions of Dorchester County, the causeway in Oxford and waterfront in Chestertown. The two feet of sea level rise forecast for 2050 will flood more than 33,000 acres or 2.9% of land across the mid-and-upper Eastern Shore. Tropical storms and hurricanes will become increasingly more “destructive when their storm surge is augmented by sea level rise,” according to the white paper.
More facts are startling. From the 1980s to the 2000s, as compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the number of “extreme heat events” doubled during this period. Scientists project a rise of 4-6 degrees Fahrenheit later in the 21st century. Why does this matter? Days with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit will range from 60-90, up from an average of 30 days during the late 20th century. Annual days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit will increase from just a handful to 10-25 days per year.
An economic perspective of these climatic changes further substantiates cause for concern and the crying need to adapt.
Excessive heat is particularly dangerous for low-income persons unable to escape the heat for several days. Emergencies and consequent health crises will exact higher costs for residents, emergency services, hospitals and health departments. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in older buildings will be inadequate, requiring maintenance and upgrades to roadways, buildings, and infrastructure; local governments thus will face serious financial costs.
Having experienced a 5-10 percent increase in annual rainfall over the past 60 years, with precipitation expected to increase 10-20 percent above the average amounts experienced at the end of the 20th century, the Eastern Shore will confront “intense downpours that deliver more rain in a shorter time period.” It’s reasonable to project that stormwater systems, roads, infrastructure, and property will become inundated. Currently, inadequate stormwater systems will have to be replaced. Sooner, rather than later.
Another flash point are droughts. “As rainfall becomes concentrated in more intense downpours, the region will also see longer dry periods between precipitation.” Longer droughts will become likelier. The agricultural economy will experience lower crop yields, probable crop failures and costs associated to switching to drought-resistant crops.
According to the white paper cited at the outset, “In the long term, choosing not to prepare for climate change will impose rising financial costs on communities…the report (produced in 2008 by the University of Maryland) cites tourism, agriculture, and health—all critical to the Eastern Shore’s prosperity—as sectors that are expected to suffer if attention is not given to climate adaptation and resilience.”
Adaptation and resilience are the words of choice for professionals intent on forestalling calamity.
For example, local governments can spend money now to upgrade infrastructure, such as stormwater systems, to handle the inevitable onslaught of water created by a sudden surge of rainfall.
From a planning standpoint, local governments can impose higher “freeboard” requirements—that is, requiring an increase in the height of the first floor to generate greater safety for homes and buildings and preclude flood-water damage to a structure, its occupants, and contents. Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties all have requirements in their floodplain ordinances of two feet of freeboard. Cambridge, Oxford and St. Michaels also have the two-foot requirement. Chestertown has a one-foot requirement.
Finally, the white paper calls for policy changes that would “encourage more resilient building codes and practices for siting and construction…greater risk reduction can be realized by directing the new private development and public investment of less flood-prone areas of the community.”
The white paper represents a collaborative effort by seven counties, two cities (Oxford and Cambridge), state agencies, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. I applaud this regional approach to share data and develop processes and recommendations to ensure that the Eastern Shore can respond effectively to climate change.
I mentioned viewing the need for climatic adaptation from an economic perspective. I am not ignoring the significant impact on humans of sea level rise, more frequent and intense rainfall occurrences and increasingly extreme heat days. The cost in dollars and lives is inestimable.
Inaction is not a thoughtful option.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.