Harwich Under Water?

According to scientists and scientific research, by the year 2100 the entire shoreline of Cape Cod will be reduced by 100 feet on all sides by a rise in sea levels resulting from human-created climate change. Further losses will result from erosion caused by increasingly severe weather and some streams and ponds, and parts of the Cape's aquifer will be contaminated by seawater. Provincetown will become an island.

Climate change and its causes are scientific facts anecdotally affirmed. Polar icecaps are melting and that water has to go somewhere. Large parts of the world are experiencing severe weather. The shoreline of the Cape is eroding, resulting in new breaks in the outer beaches at Chatham, annually replacements of the stairs at Nauset Light Beach, an influx of seawater into fresh water areas of Truro, and damaged beach parking lots from Provincetown to Sandwich. The fragile ecosystem of the Cape, built on sand, is subject to much that Mother Nature throws at it.

Climate change exists, and legitimate science has determined that human actions are its primary cause. Stopping it from happening will require action by nations on a global scale. The focus here is on the effect it is already having on Harwich and Cape Cod, will have in the future, and how to deal with that inevitable eventuality.

Conversations with two local scientists who recently participated in a conference on climate change at the Cape at the Cape Cod Community College: Amy Fleischer, 7th and 8th grade Science Teacher at the Nauset Regional Middle School, and Cally Harper, recently of the Cape Cod Commission and now a Construction Project Manager at Wilkinson Ecological Design in Orleans, offer a primer on climate change, summarized here in nonprofessionals’ terms, as well as an overview of what is happening now or lies ahead.

Climate change is not the same as when the ozone layer was being reduced by hydrofluorocarbons, mostly from aerosol sprays. That risk was human exposure to harmful UV Rays – the danger with climate change is much greater.

Climate change is the more appropriate term than Global Warming – the latter causes the former, but it is the former that affects our environment.

Climate change results from a disruption in the natural flow of the sun’s rays onto and off the earth’s surface, thereby raising or lowering global temperatures. Some scientists believe that massive beds of ancient lava found around the world depict an Earth 65 to 70 million years ago where volcanic eruptions were commonplace. According to the Volcanism Hypothesis, this global-scale volcanic activity spewed so much gas, ash, and dust into the atmosphere that it kept sunlight from reaching Earth's surface. Temperature and plant production plummeted, and dinosaurs and many other organisms that were poorly adapted to the harsh conditions perished. Others believe that a giant meteor crashing into the Earth’s surface produced the same results.

Conversely, a volcanic eruption 14,000 years ago put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that raised the temperature causing the climate to become more humid and therefore produced a rainforest. Over time, the CO2 dissipated and the climate became more temperate. In 1814, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused ash to block the sun's rays for a period of time, resulting in cooling temperatures for several years.

Modern climate change occurs when excessive amounts of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere keep the sun’s rays from returning into space after bouncing off the earth’s surface. Carbon dioxide results whenever people and animals exhale and fossil fuels are burned. The natural process whereby trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen is now limited due to human deforestation, resulting in more of the gas. Since carbon dioxide molecules can last 2,000 years, long-term temperature increases result when they block heat from escaping.

The other factor that contributes to climate change is methane, a gas given off by animal and human waste, which, fortunately, has a much shorter lifespan.

Climate change is therefore going to be around for a long time, well beyond the year 2100 mentioned above. Even if all its human causes were stopped today it would still be years before its effects could be reversed. Thus while efforts to reverse its direction are important, of equal concern are steps to be taken today to deal with its effects, be they sea level rise, severe weather, erosion, or effected water supplies, especially in an area of such ecological vulnerability as Cape Cod.

What then should be done? While there are individual steps that can be implemented, especially by persons living in areas that are or will be directly affected by climate change, deliberate planning and action by communities on the Cape will be required effectively to address its real impact. For several years, many Cape Towns, including Harwich, have been working with the Cape Cod Commission to create Hazard Mitigation Plans for their jurisdictions. Several have been completed, and according to the Town Planner, the one for Harwich is still in progress. Further, the Cape Cod Commission reports:

“Harwich is on schedule to be completed by the end of this fiscal year (June 30). A draft is expected to be circulated for comment on or about June 1. The board of selectmen will need to approve it prior to submission of the plan to MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) and Ultimately FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).”

Once that draft plan is completed, it should be available for public discussion and input, and eventual implementation.

Can the towns and residents of Cape Cod do something about the effect of climate change on the environment? The answer may rest in their willingness first to accept that this human-created phenomenon is real.