This post is an excerpt from my final paper for Urban Response to Sea Level Rise in Boston, a seminar cross-registered at the GSD, Law School, and Grad School of Arts & Sciences.
As a coastal city Boston has a complicated relationship with the sea. Boston’s long tradition as a port city has formed it into one of the most prominent cities on the East coast. At the same time the city has historically fought the sea for land, slowing increasing its landmass by expanding into Boston Harbor and the Charles River. Boston could be considered a city built figuratively and literally on water. Until recently this relationship has never been challenged. Changes in climate due to global warming will soon threaten Boston’s reclaimed land as sea level rises and storm surge intensity increases. The question is whether the sea will continuously inundate parts of Boston or if the city will respond proactively. With so much investment built along Boston harbor it seems more likely that the city, it’s residents and private enterprises will be unwilling to relinquish their land to the sea. This leaves two options for Boston – to increase resiliency by keeping water out of the city or to adapt the city to accommodate frequent inundations. This project is interested in the latter, more specifically, in relation to Boston’s infrastructure . It aims to identify, locate, and provide adaptation strategies for key risks to the vast infrastructural networks supporting Boston and often New England as a whole (see table 1). With an emphasis on key risk points, the focus is therefore on major investment points such as energy sources, ports, and transportation facilities rather than larger distribution networks.
Current High Astronomical Tide in Boston
Projected Sea Level Rise Scenarios
Some Infrastructure at Risk in Boston
The largest problem facing Boston ports is land loss due to sea level rise. Due to Boston’s extensive sea wall system and current shoreline elevation very few areas will be permanently inundated by 2050. However, by 2100 permanent inundation will become a major issue and substantial sections of Boston’s industrial waterfront will be lost (see figure 2).
A secondary issue to permanent inundation is the increase in port closures due to storm surge. Adaptation to this calls for more resilient structures on site and the ability to quickly transport cargo offsite in the event of a flood.
A third important problem facing Boston’s sea ports is potential environmental contamination due to storm surge. By 2050 the majority of Boston’s major public and private ports will flood annually due to storm surge. This will cause major contamination within Boston Harbor if left unaddressed.
Finally, changes in sea level will most likely increase the need for dredging as sedimentation of berths increases due to more intense and frequent storm surges.
Similar to the seaports two major concerns for flooding at Logan are service interruption and major environmental contamination. Due to high levels of pollution associated with aviation it is important to minimize flooding of Logan’s airside facilities, apron, and runways.
Although many aspects of the transportation sector will be affected by storm water inundations, including the road network, toll booths, I-90 & I-93 tunnels, commuter and freight rail lines, and bridges supporting all of these networks, the most heavily threatened system is more likely Boston’s subway system (see table 1). The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority is in charge of operating and maintaining the subway, commuter rail, bus, and ferry systems. This interconnected system runs through an extensive amount of potentially flood-prone areas. The subway system could be considered the biggest risk since massive loss would occur if inundation reached any of the subway station head houses, ventilation grates, or service entrances. According to the left map in figure 7, three subway stations, and two MBTA maintenance facilities lie within the projected annual flood zone. A 10-year storm event increases the number of affected stations to eleven, and a 100-year storm would effect a total of fifteen subway stations.
Boston’s Energy Supply
Energy is supplied to Boston by a number of privately-owned power plants in the metropolitan region. These include Seabrook Station, a 1,244 megawatt nuclear reactor in Seabrook, New Hampshire, Pilgrim Power Plant, a 680 megawatt nuclear reactor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a 688.3 megawatt fossil plant in North Weymouth, Massachusetts and two power plants located on Boston Harbor. 1 Unfortunately all of these facilities will most likely be at risk due to sea level rise because of the coastal locations. Of the two plants located on the harbor, Boston’s primary power plant is Mystic Generating Station, an eight unit, 1,968 megwatt combined natural gas and oil plant located along the coast of Charlestown. Boston’s second facility, the New Boston Generating Station is also operated by Exelon and provides an addition 12 megawatts of electricity via 1 oil turbine. In Boston’s case the substations convert power to a lower voltage directly at the source. Like the power plants, the equipment in these facilities cannot be flooded.
The last key pieces of infrastructure that could effect power distribution in Boston is the storage facilities and fossil fuel terminals which import fuel to Boston. With 90% of Massachusetts’ petroleum products entering the state via barge or ship, flooding of Boston’s six major fuel terminals could be disastrous in terms of environmental contamination and service interruptions. As the largest consumer of natural gas in New England, Massachusetts relies on three interstate pipelines, two off-shore liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals (connected via pipeline), and one on-shore LNG terminal in Everett. 2 The Everett terminal itself distributes 20% of all natural gas used in New England. 3 This Distrigas LNG facility and petroleum terminals will soon be prone to annual flooding.
After studying some of Boston’s key infrastructural risks it is evident that adaptation or retrofitting alone may not be the best strategy. As expected, each situation is quite specific and often resiliency (keeping water out) appears to be the most appropriate strategy. Either way, the suggestions listed above indicate extremely high costs for the city of Boston, the surround municipalities, and the state of Massachusetts if cities and state plan to maintain and / or protect all their current infrastructural investments. What’s most alarming is actually the lack of research completed on the retrofitting any infrastructure type to accommodate sea level rise. Almost all source material only speaks of the risks in general terms and often only suggests political or organizational mechanisms for creating adaptation strategies. It makes one consider whether local municipalities are even studying the affects of sea level rise on their resources and how they’re developing adaptation strategies if they are acknowledging sea level rise. It is somewhat promising that the state of Massachusetts is beginning to study potential risks in its 2011 Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report but, as indicated in the report, mapping of at-risk assets using LIDAR data need to occur soon. 4 In additions the use of a storm surge inundation modeling tool such as NOAA’s SLOSH modeling would provide more accuracy to the suggested data and allow for technical responses to sea level rise to emerge.
On a personal note, this project has led me to question the role of urban designers in adapting cities to sea level change. In my own section of the research I felt that I lacked the expertise to properly comment on the subject; expertise that port engineers, transportation engineers and experts in fossil fuel networks could contribute to sea level rise preparedness. Our group research also made it clear to me that urban designers are positioned well to address sea level rise in two manners. First, information distribution and promotion of sea level rise awareness through mapping and graphic representations. As discussed in class the available maps in sea level rise research were not specific or immediate enough to critically impact viewers. Better representation could provide a means of advocating for sea level rise planning in coastal cities like Boston. The second avenue for urban designers is in planning future development in cities like Boston. Planning new floodable developments, land use regulations, and public spaces may soon become the primary role of urban designers in coastal cities. The question remains whether Boston will be a city to embrace this new role for urban designers or to retroactively respond with technical adaptation and retrofitting.
1 New England’s Nuclear Power Plants [Map], Boston.com, accessed May 11, 2012, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/special/nuclearmap/.
2 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Execute Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Adaptation Advisory Committee, Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report, September 2011, 55.
3 Distrigas of Massachusetts LLC, GDF SUEZ Energy North America, accessed May 11, 2012, http://www.suezenergyna.com/ourcompanies/lngna-domac.shtml.
4 MA EOEEA, Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report, 54.