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Talking Points

A Boston Harbor sea barrier isn’t crazy talk anymore

The waves in Boston Harbor quickly rose last Friday amid a nor’easter.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Walling off Boston Harbor doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all.

After watching chilly seawater lap at downtown doorsteps and turn Winthrop and Quincy neighborhoods into archipelagos last weekend, local leaders probably won’t dismiss a giant harbor barrier as crazy talk.

A team of researchers led by UMass-Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab has been studying the pros and cons of such a project, thanks to $360,000 from the Barr Foundation, and plans to release the results in April.

Paul Kirshen, the lab’s director, says his team focused on two alternatives. One would be a massive, three-plus mile barrier stretching from Deer Island to Hull, with two gates for the President Roads and Nantasket Roads channels. These gates could swing shut in times of extreme storms. The other option would be a much smaller wall between Logan Airport and the South Boston Waterfront, with one gate. Both require on-shore work as well, such as barriers to block the displaced water. Kirshen says neither alternative should significantly affect Boston’s natural tides.

These projects would obviously cost billions. Think Big Dig, Part 2. Design and permitting could take a decade, and Kirshen says construction might not be done until 2050.


Shorter term, smaller fixes are already underway. Boston officials started advancing plans to build an East Boston Greenway flood wall and raise part of Charlestown’s Main Street. GE’s future headquarters is designed to withstand floods like the one that just overtook Fort Point; other companies may take similar approaches.

The Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a coalition of business and civic leaders charged with reacting to climate change, needs to consider the full range of options. At one point, many of us thought these floods wouldn’t hit us for at least another decade. Not anymore.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com and on Twitter @jonchesto.