By Gabrielle Selz
We are a community shaped and surrounded by water, bounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the Peconic Bay and the Long Island Sound; we inhabit one of the most beautiful and highly developed regions of coastal land. However, despite increased awareness of the issues of global climate change, most of us on the East End are still unaware of the vulnerability facing our immediate area.Â
Not only are sea levels rising, the rate is accelerating. Projections of sea level increases vary from, on the conservative side between 2 to 5 inches by the year 2020 to a more realistic estimation of 12 inches if rapid ice sheet melting is taken into account. Even with variance in forecasting, authorities agree that any amount of sea level rise is alarming. Additionally, because of the rising temperature of the upper level of the ocean, hurricanes are predicted to be more powerful and to last longer: Homes could be damaged, access roads flood and salt water intrude into the ground water aquifer system.Â
Though there may be a discrepancy in the degree, the change in sea levels will reconfigure the nature of our landscape within the next decade no matter what we do. The question then becomes, how do we plan for a problem that encompasses uncertain projections, sudden and devastating storms as well as incremental changes happening over long periods of time?
It’s easy to visualize the impact of a major storm. We’ve seen the images of the devastation wrought by Ike and Katrina and some of us even remember The Great Hurricane of 1938, which created the Shinnecock Inlet. Though such storms are historically rare, they are occurring with greater frequency and severity. However, it’s the gradual impact over decades from the incremental rise in sea level, that are harder for us to encompass and prepare for, and yet these are the changes that will affect our lives and communities.
The news isn’t all grim. The slow and insidious nature of the problem of rising sea levels gives us a window of opportunity to plan, both for gradual change and for the catastrophic event of a major storm.
At this point, local decision makers in our communities have been unable to effectively integrate sea level rise and coastal hazard risk into any kind of policy that would protect our human communities, our natural resources and shape land use management. Even the recent new flood maps implemented by FEMA were confusing to individual homeowners as well as town officials and land use authorities.Â
The fragility and beauty of our environment, combined with the highly developed nature of the area, offer unique challenges to the East End. We are now faced with the task of advocating for an approach to adaptation. This will take tremendous support for public policies that address sustainability.
In order to implement the changes that are necessary for a resilient community, we must come together as a society. We need to change land use policy and manage our resources, to acquire open space on the coast, to restore habitats as natural buffers, to move public structures, such as the Montauk Lighthouse which is an historic treasure and still dangerously situated, to change our wetland laws and, in the event of a catastrophic hurricane, to develop a post storm redevelopment plan that does not offer perverse incentives that keep people in harm’s way. All this takes time.Â
A forum to address these issues is being held over the weekend of March 27th on the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University. The 1st Women’s Conference on Sustainability, co-hosted by WISE (Women’s Initiatives for a Sustainable Earth) along with Stony Brook Southampton and the Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture is designed to empower, inspire and educate. The conference is open to women, men, professionals and novices and includes information, discussion and entertainment all focused on the issues of climate change and creating resilient communities. One of the speakers, Sarah Newkirk from The Nature Conservancy, will demonstrate an interactive map server that works much like Google Earth in helping East Enders to visualize, pinpoint and generate predictions of sea-level rise and hazards to individual homes.
Other speakers include Richard Leakey (the anthropologist who lives in Kenya on a self-sufficient farm), Patti Wood (Grassroots Environmental Education), Sara Gordon (trained by Al Gore for the Climate Project), and many more.
Designed to flow from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, with one price of $165 for the entire weekend, attendees are still free to pick and choose from the events that interest them most.
Personally, the flood of problems we face sometimes overcomes me. Yet the truth is that there are simple steps we can take. Passivity is often the result of not knowing how to participate. The conference offers us the opportunity to come together, educate ourselves, learn grassroots leadership practices, understand how change happens, and move toward action and advocacy.Â
For more details and to register for the conference, go to www.sowise.org.
Gabrielle Selz is a freelance writer living in Southampton. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, More Magazine and Art Papers. She’s writing on behalf of WISE and The 1st Women’s Conference on Sustainability.