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Climate change likely to hit hard on the North Shore, new report finds

Boaters enjoyed the winding waterways of the Great Marsh in Ipswich.  The Trustees of Reservations unveiled their environmental report which states that The Great Marsh could experience dramatically more flooding over the next 50 years.
Boaters enjoyed the winding waterways of the Great Marsh in Ipswich. The Trustees of Reservations unveiled their environmental report which states that The Great Marsh could experience dramatically more flooding over the next 50 years.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Since the 1950s, Crane Beach in Ipswich has lost an estimated 84 football fields worth of sand, including about 2,000 feet in length over the past 25 years.

The accelerating rate of erosion along one of the state’s most popular beaches is a sign of things to come on the North Shore as global warming produces rising seas and more powerful storms, according to a new report about the impact of climate change from Swampscott to Salisbury.

The report by the Trustees of Reservations projects that 600 North Shore properties may experience daily tidal flooding by 2030, increasing to 3,100 by 2070. In the event of the most severe storms — those that come on average once every 100 years — the report forecasts that as many as 12,000 properties could be flooded, putting more than $100 billion of coastal real estate in Essex County at risk of being inundated.

“North Shore communities, leaders, and coastal landowners can no longer postpone climate-facing emergency planning and decision making,” said Tom O’Shea, director of coastal and natural resources for the Trustees, a conservation group that oversees thousands of acres of protected land in Massachusetts. “Time is running out to take actions that will protect our coast, and the latest data featured in our report shows that many of these impacts will intensify in the next decade and accelerate after 2050.”

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State environmental officials said the report demonstrates the importance of “ongoing work to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

An shore bird rested in the trees in the Great Marsh.
An shore bird rested in the trees in the Great Marsh. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“The Trustees’ report also highlights informative data and resources, many developed by state agencies, which communities can use to better understand future climate threats,” Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said in a statement.

The 40-page report finds potentially catastrophic effects from rising seas and heavier storms on the beaches, sea walls, salt marshes, and a range of coastal development in 13 communities on the North Shore.

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Those impacts include greater erosion and habitat loss in less-developed marsh lands, and greater flooding and property damage in more developed areas.

The Great Marsh, which stretches from the Crane Wildlife Refuge in Ipswich and Essex north to Newburyport and into New Hampshire, could experience dramatically more flooding over the next 50 years. The report estimates that the area could experience daily flooding in 14,000 acres of the Great Marsh, compared with an average of about 1,500 today, putting an estimated 400 acres at risk of permanent loss.

Crane Beach has has lost an estimated 84 football fields worth of sand.
Crane Beach has has lost an estimated 84 football fields worth of sand.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In Salisbury, chronic flooding could inundate more than 500 buildings a year by 2050 and three times that number during heavy storms.

In the same time, Newburyport is likely to lose more than two-thirds of its tidal flats to open water, while the city’s downtown riverfront will be susceptible to flooding in big storms, according to the report.

Other findings include: Ipswich’s town center is at risk of regular flooding by 2050, as are oceanfront homes in Rockport. In Gloucester, a 100-year storm could flood an estimated 27 miles of the city’s roads. Manchester-by-the-Sea is at risk of losing nearly 20 percent of its high marsh land within the next 30 years.

“This report reinforces what other studies have shown — that both people and nature will suffer tremendous impacts from climate change and that time is running short to both minimize those impacts and to prepare responses to unavoidable impacts already underway,” said Heidi Ricci, director of advocacy at Mass Audubon, a conservation group.

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Jack Clarke, a member of the state’s Special Commission on Coastal Erosion, said the Trustees should have called for a bolder response by the state.

“I was disappointed that the report did not … call for a retreat from the shoreline, rather than a digging-in approach, with repairs and restorations of gray and green infrastructure,” he said. “A public retreat conversation has to happen seriously and in a big way and not after a storm event when public officials and politicians are intent on returning people to their homes and neighborhoods.”

Requiring such a retreat from the coast would save lives, improve the environment, and save tax dollars, Clarke said.

He urged the state to issue new regulations for land subject to coastal flooding. Of seven “coastal resource areas” subject to the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, it’s the only one that lacks standards, he said.

O’Shea of the Trustees said the report calls for the state to buy certain properties and convert more of the shore to open land.

“Coastal landowners and communities have difficult decisions to make,” he said. “Is retreat a potential strategy? In some cases, maybe yes. But ... we found that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and this report’s findings demonstrate the need to come together as a region for coordinated strategies.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.