Research Highlights: What do Maine’s coastal communities need to safely weather more frequent and intense storms?

By Alex Gray, Graduate Student, University of Maine

Research Partners: Professor Shaleen Jain, Civil, and Environmental Engineering and Climate Change Institute and Esperanza Stancioff, Climate Change Educator, UMaine Extension/Sea Grant

storm damage of shoreline property
Patriot’s Day Storm. Photo by Lee Zipp (April 16, 2007, Biddeford, ME)

On April 16, 2007, one of the largest spring storms in memory hit New England, sending 30- foot waves crashing onto the coastline. The 2007 “Patriots’ Day Storm” pushed many coastal communities beyond their ability to cope with such extreme storms. Now, many cities and towns are struggling to adapt current and future development projects to withstand future storms of this magnitude, which are projected to increase in both frequency and intensity.

This spring, University of Maine researchers met with municipal officials of Lincolnville and Portland to discuss the barriers they face in preparing for the effects of a changing climate. At both meetings, people said reports like Maine’s Climate Future, while interesting (to those who may have read it), contain too much uncertainty and lack location-specific information for them to use in their decision-making processes. As a result, researchers are now interested in learning the types of information municipal officials do use, especially when preparing their communities for extreme weather conditions such as snow and ice storms, storm surge, heavy rain, and high winds.

Another concern raised during both meetings was that coastal communities experience different types of damage during storms. In Lincolnville, when heavy rains flood lakefront properties, the town must ask the downstream town of Camden to open a dam in order to lower water levels, but this usually causes flooding in Camden’s downtown riverfront buildings and so the town is often reluctant to open the dam. In Portland, downtown flooding is the result of culverts that are too small to handle the runoff from severe storms. The city wants to fix the inadequate culverts, but limits of federal assistance further strain the limited resources of municipalities.

Solutions for Lincolnville and Portland need to be based on both the problems themselves (rising lake water levels versus failing/inadequate culverts) and the type of community being affected (small rural town versus large urban city). In addition, information to solve these problems needs to be specific to each community’s unique characteristics in order to support their decision-making processes.

In the Summer of 2010, researchers from the University of Maine surveyed coastal community officials to learn about problem areas and how they are affected by snow and ice storms, storm surge, heavy rain, and high winds. The research team is developing an “adaptation atlas” based on the results of the survey, which will be used in workshops and meetings with communities to discuss the solutions and assets that will prepare them for a changing climate.

This project is funded through the National Science Foundation Sustainability Solutions Initiative at the University of Maine George Mitchell Center.