07/06/15 5:00am
07/06/2015 5:00 AM

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati has become the first country in the world to declare that climate change is rendering it uninhabitable.

Unfamiliar with the name? Try Gilbert Islands, its former name. And the World War II generation will know the Battle of Tarawa, the site of one of the bloodiest in U.S. Marine Corps history. It was a critical battle to free the Gilberts after a Japanese invasion and two years of occupation.

Now Kiribati, an independent country since 1979, with a population of 103,000, is facing another invasion. Its 33 low-lying islands are being attacked by a rising sea, a result of climate change, also interchangeably called global warming. Kiribati’s government last year began purchasing land for evacuating its people — eight square miles on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji Islands, 1,200 miles away.

Other Pacific island countries are expected to follow Kiribati’s lead and declare themselves uninhabitable in the next few years, while major parts of other nations will also be decimated by climate change. An anticipated 3-foot rise in sea level will put one seventh of Bangladesh underwater, for example.

We here have more time, but not as much as one would think, before things get bad and then worse on Long Island and New York City. Significant portions of both are expected to be hit hard in coming decades by sea level rise.

Preparing for this, last week the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held four public meetings, two on Long Island and two in the city, to seek citizen input on a report of the Sea Level Rise Task Force created by the state in 2007.

The DEC sums up the report on its website. The DEC states: “By 2100 scientists project that sea levels along New York’s coastlines and estuaries will likely be 18 to 50 inches higher, though they could be as much as 75 inches higher.” With much of Long Island and New York City, only 2, 3, 4 and 5 feet above sea level, those kinds of increases could be devastating.

There are projections of the sea level rise at Montauk Point. In the decade starting with 2020, they range from a low of 2 inches above the levels of the last decade to a high of 10; in the decade starting with 2050 an increase of 8 and a high of 30 inches; in the decade beginning with 2080; a low of 13 and high of 58; and in 2100 a prediction of a total low of 15 and a high of 72 inches.

Long Island naturalist Larry Penny says low-lying downtown Montauk could be especially hard hit, along with other areas of the town. Indeed, much of the Napeague stretch between Montauk and Amagansett could end up underwater with Montauk becoming several islands.

As for Shelter Island, he said, “Shelter Island is pretty high,” but land along the Ram Island causeway “is vulnerable.”

Commenting on other vulnerable Long Island locations, Mr. Penny, former director of the East Hampton Department of Environmental Protection, cited parts of East Hampton, Noyac, North Sea, “downtown Sag Harbor especially,” Shirley (where one of the DEC meetings was held), “Westhampton Beach is very vulnerable,” Mastic, Mattituck, “Riverhead is very low” and Fire Island, among other locations.

“New York City will have a hell of a time,” he said. “Scary.”

The DEC also notes: “Most of the sea-level rise observed to date has been due to the thermal expansion of warming waters. But today, added water from melting glaciers and land ice sheets is starting to contribute more to sea-level rise than heat-driven expansion of existing seawater. And the Arctic and Antarctic have abundant supplies of land ice yet to melt, all of which will add to sea levels.”

The report offers recommendations, such as: “Provide financial support, guidance and tools for community-based vulnerability assessments … Support increased reliance on non-structural measures and natural protective features to reduce impacts … Raise public awareness of the adverse impacts of sea-level rise and climate change and of the potential adaptive strategies.”

Key issues in climate change are the burning of fossil fuels that have caused global warming. As important in increasing global warming is denial of the situation, led in the U.S. by Republican leaders of Congress. We must move to a society energized 100 percent by clean, green power. And reality must be recognized.

Otherwise we will see more plaintive declarations such as these on the national website of Kiribati — “Although in most of the world there is some time to plan and prepare for climate change, Kiribati is the first to feel its effects as a direct threat to continued life in our country … In Kiribati, the entire nation faces real danger — our own survival is at stake as a people, as a unique and vibrant culture and as a sovereign nation.” And little Kiribati shares none of the responsibility for the situation. Kiribati’s carbon dioxide emissions have been “lower than any other country except one in the world,” it says.

As Pope Francis emphasized last week in his encyclical on the environment: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political … It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times/Review Newsgroup publication.

04/11/15 12:00pm
04/11/2015 12:00 PM
Audubon Society Conservation Data Manager Tom Auer will try to rally support to save birds. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Audubon Society Conservation Data Manager Tom Auer will try to rally support to save birds. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

Birds aren’t political.That’s why the National Audubon Society’s Conservation Data Manager Tom Auer hopes he’ll be able to engage his audience at Mashomack Preserve today in taking steps to protect the feathered population from becoming extinct.  (more…)

10/30/13 5:00pm
10/30/2013 5:00 PM
CYNDI MURRAY FILE PHOTO | Erosion has claimed much of the beach at Norman Klipp Park in Greenport.

CYNDI MURRAY FILE PHOTO | Erosion has claimed much of the beach at Norman Klipp Park in Greenport.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted a law last week aimed at protecting and preserving East End coastlines that are at significant risk to climate change and sea level rise.

Proposed by Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), the new law notes rising sea levels as one reason towns can purchase shorefront property using Community Preservation Fund dollars.

While towns could previously purchase undeveloped land on the shore, climate change could not specifically be one reason why towns were paying for them.

“What we wanted to do was to put in the statute that one of the factors towns can consider is the issue of climae change, and sea level rise,” said Thiele. “While there may be disagreement as to their cause, nobody can deny that [climate change] is happening.”

The law, signed last Wednesday, came just days before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which damaged shorelines along the North Fork.

Each of the five towns uses a Community Preservation Fund to preserve environmentally sensitive land for open space, farmland preservation, historic preservation and parks for recreational use, but existing law did not specifically include at-risk coastlines, he said.

The fund, approved by referendum of East End voters in 1998, applies a 2 percent tax on all real estate transfers to set aside funds for land preservation purchases.

According to Mr. Thiele, real estate transfer tax revenues for the first nine months of 2013 have raised $1.77 million for Riverhead Town, while Southold Town has taken in $2.98 million. Since the fund’s start, more than 10,000 acres of land have been preserved.

“In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, it was recognized that there was also a need to further ensure that we also protect lands that are at risk of coastal flooding and sea level rise,” Mr. Thiele said. “These sensitive lands are critical to the future of our local coastal communities.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, increases in heavier rainfall and projected sea level rise could lead to more frequent damaging floods – along with storm surges of greater intensity in the Northeast.

“It is fitting that we take this step to conserve our beautiful and pristine beaches that not only act as a buffer to protect our coastal communities but also represent an emblematic symbol of Long Island’s East End,” said Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who sponsored the state Senate bill.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the town has been examining areas that may meet the new law’s criteria.

“If it’s undeveloped shoreline – our interests are already there,” Mr. Russell said. The town had been looking into acquiring funding thorough the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service to purchase coastal farmland at a high risk of flooding. The new law gives the town another option to work with, he said.

“The land preservation committee will look at the new law and see how we can make it work for Southold,” he said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said the town has “attempted to buy wetlands in coastal areas since the inception of the fund, but now this gives us the absolute authority where as before it was more of a general authority as open space.

“It’s a good thing, unfortunately for the Town of Riverhead; we don’t have much CPF money left – but it’s a good tool to have for the future,” he said.

In the early 2000s, Riverhead Town leaders started borrowing against future CPF revenues to buy open land before an anticipated rise in real estate values. But when real estate market stalled, revenues to pay off the debt did not come in as expected, leaving an annual shortfall of nearly $4 million, according to a News-Review report.

Should the town find the appropriate funds, Mr. Walter said the coastal area off Creek Road in Wading River is an example of a space the town might be interested in.

“The houses along Creek Road are always at risk because it is a bit of barrier road that protects the wetlands,” Mr. Walter said.

Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said “the key word in this legislation is ‘undeveloped’ lands.”

“This is what the original act intended, so this particular bill makes clear that vulnerable coastal areas will be a priority for CPF finding in the years ahead,” Mr. Amper said. “Sea level rise will affect Long Island Sound and it will affect the Peconic bays.”

Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said towns could gain waterfront access while protecting sensitive marshland that needs to be preserved – actions that many towns are already invested in.

“It’s not really a departure from what we’re doing now,” said Mr. Krupski. “The areas you’re talking about, they are areas already important to the program.”

Adding coastline into the mix with already sought-after farmland and open space means “each town really has to do their due diligence and prioritize,” Mr. Krupski said. “How do they want to spend their money?”