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Rising seas could mean 62,000 Mass. homes will face chronic flooding by 2060, report says

The coastline of Marshfield days after a nor'easter hit in March.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The coastline of Marshfield days after a nor'easter hit in March.

Nearly 62,000 homes and $45 billion worth of real estate in Massachusetts could face chronic flooding from sea level rise in the decades to come, according to a report out Monday, with the effects being felt first in smaller cities with fewer resources to prepare.

By 2060, more than a quarter of the homes in Hull could flood 26 times or more a year just from high tides, according to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 22 percent of the houses in the North Shore town of Salisbury might be inundated. In Winthrop, Revere, Nahant, and Marshfield, at least 10 percent of homes could routinely be flooded by then – with the flooding spreading to more coastal communities if sea levels continue to rise over the second half of the century.

If that happens, the damage could be widespread, warned the Cambridge-based advocacy group, crashing housing markets and devastating the tax base, which would rob municipalities of the resources needed to cope with higher seas.

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“This has really broad implications for coastal communities,” said Rachel Cleetus, the organization’s policy director for the climate and energy program. “The financial and human costs of this would be enormous.”

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The study, which combined flood mapping estimates with property data drawn from real estate website Zillow, comes amid an ongoing conversation in Massachusetts over how to prepare for sea level rise. In Boston, the Walsh administration is crafting neighborhood-level climate plans and is prodding developers to make new buildings more resilient, while researchers are studying the feasibility of a massive barrier wall across the mouth of Boston Harbor.

But smaller municipalities are less equipped to deal with flooding and will find themselves at risk sooner. The Union’s data predict cities and towns just north of Boston, such as Revere, Saugus and Winthrop, and a few communities on the South Shore, including Marshfield and Quincy, will start to see tidal flooding in 1 percent or more of their homes by 2030.

More coastal towns are beginning to prepare for sea level rise, said Rebecca Davis, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, who noted that this past winter’s weather certainly raised awareness.

The Baker administration has funded a variety of local planning efforts, she said, and a $1.4 billion bond bill before the Legislature would provide funding for more climate defenses. But federal money is largely absent, Davis said, and it will be hard for municipalities and the state on their own to find enough money to cope.

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“Over the next 10 years, we’re going to have to have some hard conversations about how we’re going to finance this,” Davis said. “To be effective, it needs to be a regional solution.”

In the meantime, cities and towns are doing what they can.

Winthrop, for example, has commissioned resiliency studies, including one designed to protect pumping stations, fire houses, and evacuation routes from the town, which juts into Boston Harbor. Quincy has plans in the works, too, and is working to raise about one mile of sea wall along Adams Shore and Hough’s Neck, an area that was hit hard over the winter.

That will cost $15 million to $20 million, said Chris Walker, a spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch, and take years to permit and build. And, he acknowledged, a sea wall is “not a 100-year solution.”

“This is not easy work,” Walker said. “It’s a long, expensive process even to do what, to the naked eye, would seem relatively simple.”

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.