Aquinnah discusses climate resiliency

Martha’s Vineyard Commission will spearhead an Islandwide climate resiliency planning project.

Aquinnah and other towns on Martha’s Vineyard will be partnering with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to plan for mitigative and adaptive measures to combat climate change. — Screenshot

Members of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) were before the Aquinnah selectmen Wednesday to present an Islandwide climate resiliency planning initiative. 

In order to plan for the entire Island, MVC executive director Adam Turner said, individual municipalities must identify their own primary areas of concern, as well as commonalities between towns. He also said the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will play an instrumental part in the planning process.

Meghan Gombos, a member of the MVC Adaptation Master Plan Subcommittee, said the team has compiled adaptation booklets for each Island town, with specific areas of concern involved with mitigation and adaptation.

“These booklets contain a compilation of various resources that can support planning for climate change,” Gombos said. She called the booklets “a one-stop shop for climate change information.”

Gombos stressed that town engagement will be the key to making this a successful project.

According to Gombos, the project will focus on two elements of climate change — mitigation and adaptation. 

Mitigation is focused on reducing fossil fuels and emissions to slow the effects of climate change, Gombos said. But even with proper mitigation efforts, Gombos said the climate will inevitably change, and so will the conditions we are living in as an Island community. 

This is why adaptations are necessary in order to adjust to those new conditions and minimize negative impacts, according to Gombos.

“Things like protecting salt marshes, moving critical infrastructure away from vulnerable and low-lying areas. One great example of adaptation was moving the Gay Head Lighthouse away from the eroding Cliffs,” she said. “With these measures, we can build our community resilience.”

Gombos laid out the main climate hazards that will affect the entire world. She said that as greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane flood the atmosphere, average global air temperatures increase. This means hotter summers and warmer winters, she said.

As the air temperature increases and the levels of carbon dioxide rise, Gombos said, oceans “act as a sink for those,” so studies are showing increased sea surface temperatures and acidification. 

And as warmer water expands and the polar ice caps melt, sea levels will continue to rise.

Gombos said sea levels have already risen approximately six inches since 1970, and will rise another six inches to a foot and a half by 2050.

She explained that swelling sea levels will create more “sunny-day flooding events,” or tidal flooding caused by the temporary inundation of low-lying areas, especially streets, during exceptionally high tide events, such as at full and new moons.

Currently, Gombos said, projections anticipate no more than seven of those flooding events this year, but by 2050, there could be anywhere between 35 and 135 flooding events.

With the combination of warmer air and water and higher sea levels, Gombos said, these three elements create “the perfect storm,” so the Island can expect more extreme weather events on the horizon. 

For Aquinnah, Gombos said, the central areas of concern are low-lying roads, potential damage to the Hariph’s Creek Bridge, and a loss of emergency communications during a weather event, as well as damage to areas in Menemsha and West Basin.

In the way of vulnerable natural resources, Gombos said Aquinnah has identified top impacts of concern in the high rates of erosion of cliffs and beaches, as well as the negative impacts to Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds, and the shellfish habitats that exist there.

Impacts to cultural food crops and vulnerability of artesian wells were also areas of concern. With all these changes, Aquinnah’s socioeconomic structure will have to be bolstered in order to protect our delicate Island economy.

Top socioeconomic impacts identified by Aquinnah residents are the loss of cultural resources, increased cost of living, and a loss of tourism and tax revenue from low-lying homes if those areas are inundated with sea level rise. And an aging population in Aquinnah requires a strong emergency response and communication infrastructure for any major weather events or flooding.

Because of the multitude of common concerns among Island towns, Gombos said it makes sense to look at these issues collectively, “and tackle them in a collective way.”

“Where does it make sense for us to share resources and come together over these common concerns?” Gombos asked.

According to Gombos, the core planning team at the MVC has reached out to the Aquinnah harbormaster, Realtors, and other folks who could play a part in the planning process. 

“Climate change does present a lot of challenges, but because it is a slow-moving process, we have a good bit of time to thoughtfully plan now,” Gombos said.

In other business, Aquinnah has set dates for opening up its recreational and commercial scalloping seasons.

Menemsha Pond will be open for family (recreational) scalloping on Nov. 1, and for commercial scalloping on Nov. 23. A meeting will be held on Nov. 15 to finalize regulations for the commercial season, including times for shellfishing and bag limits.