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Helping Communities Weather the Storms

water pouring from culvertInstitution: University of Maine
Sponsor: National Science Foundation through the Sustainability Solutions Initiative

Increasingly intense and frequent storms are striking Maine and New England, causing millions of dollars in damage and threatening fragile ecosystems. Shaleen Jain, UMaine assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Esperanza Stancioff, extension associate professor, University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant, are leading an SSI research team that will help Maine communities better understand and prepare for the potential local impacts of climate change.

Why This Project?

downtown EastportMaine’s coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, which can damage infrastructure and property, ecosystems, and local economies that rely on tourism, the state’s largest industry. For instance, the Patriot’s Day Storm of 2007 caused an estimated $45 million in damage to roads and other infrastructure. The extremely wet summer of 2009 triggered a landslide that threatened homes on a bluff above the Penobscot River and caused 250 beach advisories or closures in other parts of the state due to contamination from storm water runoff.

Managing increased storm water runoff, which can flood urban areas and wash pathogens and other pollution into coastal and inland waters, is a prime example of the challenges communities face in coping with climate change. Infrastructure improvements to address these problems, such as the installation of appropriately sized culverts, are expensive and complex. Culvert work, for instance, is regulated and governed by various local, state and federal agencies that often have very different governance structures. These differences may impede the ability of neighboring communities similarly affected by extreme weather to work together on effective solutions.

In addition, current climate science and models are often too vague to be useful to local decision makers, little place-based information exists, and rural and urban communities face very different kinds of challenges from extreme weather. As a result of these and other factors, municipalities often lack the information and resources necessary to make key decisions that could help prevent or minimize damage and economic losses from future storms.

Connecting Knowledge with Action

researcher with computerUsing interviews, surveys and focus groups, the SSI team is working with Maine coastal communities from Kittery to Eastport in order to develop decision-making tools that will help them better assess their vulnerability to climate change and prepare for the future.

The researchers have found that extreme weather causes different kinds of damage in rural and urban communities. In follow-up meetings and focus groups, they have learned that municipal officials need better information in two key areas: the potential local effects of more severe weather, and the interconnections between government agencies at all levels overseeing the installation and repair of culverts and other infrastructure.

Team members are gathering this information and combining it with detailed analyses of historical and projected climate and weather data. Their finding will contribute to more effective tools and resources that coastal communities can use to better plan for extreme weather, determine the best adaptation strategies, and improve their resiliency to future storms.

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Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.