SoutholdVOICE climate change forum introduces issues, potential solutions

Scientists from Suffolk County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension presented an educational forum on the state of our climate system Saturday morning, as part of “Rising Waters. Receding Shorelines,” an information session led by nonprofit SoutholdVOICE.

Two members of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program, also a nonprofit group, spoke to an audience of between 75 and 100 local residents at the American Legion in Southold, discussing rising sea levels, strengthening tropical storms, vulnerable roadways and the future of agriculture and marine life on Long Island. They also addressed a handful of natural solutions for coastline resiliency, including the prospect of creating a “living shoreline.”

“We’ve seen about a 0.8-degree [Celsius] increase, on average, of the global temperatures,” Matthew Sclafani, Ph.D., said, citing data from the NASA Earth Observatory. Dr. Sclafani serves as the senior extension resource educator for the marine program.

This increase, Dr. Sclafani explained, has real-world implications across the board — namely, that it can cause seawater to expand and ice to melt, resulting in sea level rise. Rising sea levels are leading to more frequent and extreme storms, Dr. Sclafani said, which means faster wind speeds, increased precipitation and, potentially, an impact on soil cover. This, in turn, could have detrimental effects on crops and, therefore, on the livelihoods of farmers.

As more water pushes up against the shore, issues that most strongly affect low-lying areas arise. Suffolk County is riddled with shoreline issues, with many especially vulnerable low-lying coastal communities.

Chris Pickerell, director of CCE’s Marine Program, suggested a “living shoreline” as a potential option — if the terrain and other factors support one. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, living shoreline projects use different types of structural and organic materials, such as wetland plants, submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reefs, sand fill and stone to avoid erosion from high winds and to harden shorelines. These shorelines also work to improve and maintain the well-being of aquatic marine life.

Also of great consequence, Dr. Sclafani said, are the potential impacts that rising sea levels may have on groundwater. According to the United States Geological Survey, sea level rise can create not only roadway flooding, but flooding into the island’s septic systems and basements.

“There’s also [the concern of] saltwater intrusion into our freshwater supply,” Dr. Sclafani said. “What happens is, the saltwater comes closer to our supply wells and that interface between saltwater and freshwater as our sea levels rise is dangerous.”

Climate change, Dr. Sclafani said, is a tricky thing — but it’s something that people can work toward dealing with.

“We have a great propensity for fight or flight, so if something is immediately pressing we respond quickly and we deal with it … Climate change is a slow burn issue,” he said. “It takes a long time to feel the effects of climate change. It’s happening and it seems like it’s happening, potentially, at an accelerated rate. And there are things we can do about it. We do have time to react and adapt.”

Mr. Pickerell said coastal resiliency options include installing bulkheads, but emphasized that bulkheads can end up destroying a significant amount of vegetation. He recommended planting Spartina alterniflora, or cordgrass, at mean sea level. Doing so behind a wall of rocks can allow the Spartina to thrive and protect the shoreline.

He also introduced to the audience the Cedar Beach Creek Habitat Restoration Project, on which his team just received a permit to begin work.

The project will restore critical ecosystem functions to the 65-acre marsh and beach lands, which have since 1930 been the victim of large-scale erosion and marsh degradation. It is set to create more than 19.5 acres of salt marsh and marsh islands through clean dredged material, new oyster reefs, 1.7 acres of new seagrass meadow and to improve three acres of new open water habitat through increased and improved flushing, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This is a project we’re looking to do to demonstrate various methods that can be used by local residents,” he said. “The whole idea is to come up with some scenarios that would be permitted by the [town] trustees. We have to do it this summer to complete installation.”

Funded by grants from the county and Peconic Estuary, the project will cost $728,782. It will, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “establish and enhance three critical marine habitats in the Peconic Estuary.”

“We’re not able to help in all of these cases,” Dr. Sclafani said, “and that’s a more challenging problem. Like Chris [Pickerell] said, it’s not a magic bullet. There’s no one answer, but it hopefully offers a few natural methods to preserve habitat while protecting the shoreline.” Dr. Sclafani said he understands that people may not buy into the exact mechanisms of what is happening to the climate or to their environment, but that it is all being closely documented by a number of agencies.

“People are starting to feel these things, whether it’s through storm flooding or more of these episodic and catastrophic events,” he said. “It’s impactful to people’s lives and it’s impactful to the economy.”

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