There is no Planet B: A Look at Seacoast Climate Change

Climate change is serious, everyone knows that; what everyone may not know is just how serious it is. 

Many of us are aware of climate change, but only a few recognize the severity of the issue. These activists and researchers are urging communities around the world to address it before it’s too late. In New Hampshire, citizens are engaged at both a state and local level, collecting data on the changing environment to raise awareness on both the global and state-specific impacts. They hope that it will convince others to start taking action in the effort to save our planet.

Being on the coast of the Atlantic, in a highly-populated area, New Hampshire is susceptible to various effects of climate change. Locally, there are many different groups and organizations representing those impacts. However, New Hampshire State Government is more focused around the most urgent issues, including sea level rise. 

One of the first moves the state took to address this was in 2014, when it put together a report titled “Sea-Level Rise, Storm Surges, and Extreme Precipitation in Coastal New Hampshire: Analysis of Past and Projected Trends.” It covered changes in sea level rise, and the influence that has on things like weather patterns and anomalies. As awareness surrounding climate change rose in the following years, New Hampshire state legislature passed RSA 483-B, an act that ensured that the data the 2014 report covered would be updated every five years. 

The state’s first follow-up report was finished in 2019. Researchers brought in to collect information and analyze data were concerned to find that trends established in the 2014 report differed from those of the new 2019 one. David Trubey, an Archeologist and Review and Compliance Coordinator for the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, noticed those changes immediately. 

“The issue is much worse than what [researchers] thought five years ago… For example, the projection for sea level rise, and what that will do for the environment, is huge,” he said. The rise Trubey is referring to is predicted by the 2019 report to be somewhere between 1.3 and 2.3 feet by 2050. In comparison, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  the average sea level rise in the 20th century was 1.7 mm per year. For New Hampshire specifically, that meant a sea level increase of 7 inches since 1950.

The state isn’t only investigating these issues for the sake of towns on the seacoast. According to Kirsten Howard, the Coastal Resilience Coordinator for NHDES and contributor to the report, inland communities are just as at risk. Howard said, “the research shows that as sea level rises, fresh water underground rises, and that influences places as far inland as three miles from the coast. Folks living there might not realize that sea level will affect them too.”

Sea level rise has already had a dramatic impact on the New Hampshire coast. According to a report published by the NOAA, tidal flooding has increased by as much as 260% in some parts of the state since 2000. This includes increased storm surge flooding, like the state saw with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It also means flooding regardless of rain, according to When tides are high enough, ocean water pressure backs up the drainage systems designed to empty out into the ocean. This creates an opportunity for flooding at any time. 

The state is currently working to reduce further damage in high-risk areas. Some of those communities include Hampton, which is, according to Howard, implementing protocol like raising roads, building sea walls, and even evacuating neighborhoods to keep people safe. However, as previously mentioned, it’s not just coastal towns that need to prepare. Durham, for example, is in the process of updating its “Master Plan” to account for environmental changes and how infrastructure will be built around that. 

Durham also has local groups taking initiatives to address climate change. Some are working in conjunction with the state on issues related to sea level rise, but there are a number of other issues being considered as well. Evelyn Ashburner (‘22) is a member of Oyster River High School’s Sustainability Club, which has been focusing on waste production in the community. Last year, the Sustainability Club conducted a waste audit at Oyster River High School, where they found, among other things, that 7,000 lbs of organic waste ended up in the wrong bins. 

“Something we see constantly is littering and waste. It’s on the beaches and in the water, and there’s ridiculous amounts of trash on our shores. It’s a really big problem,” Ashburner said. “By educating our student body, we’re hoping that they will change their behavior and really think when they’re throwing things out.”

Ashburner wasn’t alone in emphasizing the importance of educating others. Lawrence Hamiltion, a UNH professor, has authored several research papers on how communities think about climate change. Hamilton found that, the less aware a community is, the less importance they place on the issue. 

“With COVID-19, too, a lot of people are forgetting that our environment is still suffering,” Hamilton said. “These things aren’t going away. In fact, they’re only getting more serious.”

However, Hamilton noted that social engagement is slowly picking back up again as the world learns how to navigate the pandemic. Trubey also attested to this, mentioning how the committees he serves on are continuing to meet online. “There’s still a platform for getting the word out,” he said. “As long as people are using it, we can keep the conversation going.” 

This idea of “keeping the conversation going” is critical to the mission of both state and local groups. Researchers say that preserving the relevance of climate change is key to making progress, and they’re working to continually educate citizens. One way the state is doing this is through a newsletter for the NH Coastal Adaptation Work Group. Howard and Trubey both recommend that those interested in environmental issues on the coast subscribe. There are also plenty of local resources to engage with, including town commissions, nonprofits, and community reports. 

 Along with staying informed, citizens can get involved by joining local organizations that push for better environmental policy. Ashburner strongly suggests that interested ORHS students check out the Sustainability Club, which has more members this year than ever before. 

Ultimately, climate activists want to see people engaged and interested in the fate of their planet. Whether that be joining a group, receiving a newsletter, or reducing their carbon footprint, researchers encourage us to treat climate change with the severity it deserves.