Friday’s flooding was a glimpse

This type of flooding is becoming more frequent. -Rich Saltzberg

To the Editor:

The widespread flooding on Friday, Dec. 23, is a good indicator of what’s to come more frequently, or perhaps permanently, depending on anticipated events in Antarctica. All three down-Island towns and Menemsha saw major flooding around their harbors caused by storm-driven surges coincident with a new-moon high tide. As storms go around here, it wasn’t that memorable, except perhaps for the extensive flooding. 

Anyone driving through Five Corners, or attempting to that day, was treated to hubcap-deep water, or found it and Beach Road, once again, closed to traffic altogether. By around 2 pm, the road was open, but there was still enough water sloshing around the intersection to require a very slow left turn toward the SSA terminal. This is now happening with monotonous regularity. And the flooding will become more frequent, and worse, as sea level continues to rise, and storms become more frequent and intense. The hospital and all the existing commercial activity along that busy corridor, plus all the new development proposed for the area (the wind farm maintenance facility and housing on the former lumberyard property), will be increasingly stranded. Not to mention the SSA terminal.

Recently reported research on the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica indicates a huge meltwater river has formed under the glacier, in addition to enhanced surface melting, and the high probability of a very large section about to break free. The result is an expected permanent sea level rise of two to four feet (!) within three to five years. Let me repeat: two to four feet of increase in three to five years! Let that sink in! That destroys any assumption of a slow, constant rate of sea level rise. The historic record also supports rapid rises. The post-glacial period of the past 15,000 to 20,000 years shows sea level increase has been punctuated by major changes in very short periods of time such as the predicted three- to five-year time frame. How do we deal with that, given the lead time necessary to prepare for such a dramatic and potentially catastrophic change? And let us not forget the lunar cycle produces high tides every two weeks, superimposed on any permanent sea level rise. Not to mention the storm surges we experience all the time already. 

A perfect example of how not to prepare for what’s coming is what just happened in Tisbury. A major rebuild of Beach Road, paid for by the state, just completed, with no change in its elevation to compensate for sea level rise. Nor are there now sufficient drainage improvements, either at Five Corners or along the road. Was no one aware of the existing problems, and of what is to come? Of course both the state DOT and the town of Tisbury are very aware. But evidently irreconcilable disagreements between the two responsible entities about what should be done resulted in this unacceptable status quo. That sort of not solving the problem can’t continue. 

Granted the problems are huge, scary, and have no easy solutions. Nor inexpensive ones. Even such preparations as have been made, such as the recent elevation of the Edgartown Yacht Club building, are going to prove inadequate protection. Specifically, what do we do about all the SSA facilities in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs? The Chappy Ferry? What about access to the hospital? The list goes on and on.

So are operable sea barriers in the harbors, such as the one in New Bedford, in our future? One each in Vineyard Haven between the Chops, Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, Menemsha, Tashmoo? A viaduct from Five Corners to the Lagoon Bridge? Giant pumping stations for more localized problems such as Five Corners? Some entities have to be planning something, and the time for that was a while ago, because the flooding future is staring us in the face now. Dec. 23 gave us a glimpse, and that wasn’t as bad as it will be.

Richard Knabel
West Tisbury

Knabel is a retired professor of physical science.  –Ed.