Chatham As A Climate Change Laboratory? Town Could Lure Academics To Meet, Study Here

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Environment , Economic development

CHATHAM — Over centuries, rising sea levels threaten to simply wipe parts of Chatham off the map. But long before that happens, town officials are hoping that some of the world’s great scientific minds will put the town on the map as a global center for climate change research.

For the past six months, a working group has been quietly meeting to discuss a broad strategy to attract the interest of an academic institution that might eventually establish a research station in town.

“The primary concept we were looking at was climate change,” Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. Duncanson has served on the working group along with selectmen Shareen Davis and Dean Nicastro, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith, Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan, finance committee members Stephen Daniel and Florence Seldin and resident John Cullinane.

Chatham is uniquely positioned to host academics, Nicastro said, “given our natural resources and our topography, our position on the water.” A scientific institution could “inject a little academic life into town,” possibly leading to a brick-and-mortar facility, “and we could have some new jobs created,” Nicastro said. In the shorter term, Chatham could host an annual or semiannual symposium bringing together key researchers, he said.

Climate-related research in Chatham could take various forms, Duncanson said. It is a good place to observe erosion linked to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. From a commercial fishing perspective, the Cape is positioned roughly along an ocean borderline between cold- and warm-water species, and that border is showing signs of moving. In the coming decades, the commercial shellfish industry could be harmed by diseases linked to rising water temperatures, he said. The town is located on one of the largest bird fly-ways in the world, and has harbors, an airport, and close proximity to Woods Hole and Boston, “all things that would contribute to this in various ways,” Duncanson added.

But the town offers more than a vantage point for climate data collection, he said. The real value would be in linking researchers with the people who are experiencing the effects of climate change to enhance an understanding of its social costs.

“How do we integrate the fishermen into that conversation?” he said, or connect coastal geologists with waterfront property owners who are experiencing sea level rise. The partnership would not only bring needed expertise to the town, but offers a chance for researchers to get “out of their ivy tower” of academia and interact with real people.

The working group has had informal conversations with four institutions, stressing the partnerships the town has already established with groups like the Center for Coastal Studies, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

“In our conversations with the academic institutions, they supported that,” Duncanson said. There also appears to be a lack of climate-change focused research centers between Connecticut and Maine, he added.

But the concept remains in its early stages, Duncanson stressed.

“Frankly, we don’t know what they need,” he said. To encourage such a partnership, the town would certainly need to make a long-term financial investment. With researchers, “it all comes down to money,” he said. The town might ultimately explore providing researchers with a facility, housing, dock and mooring space, or other resources. Even hosting a symposium would require inviting 20 or 30 experts from all around the world, “and you pay all their expenses,” Duncanson said. If the town is seeking to encourage a research institution to build a physical facility in town, that will also require a commitment to long-term support. “They’re going to have to make a financial commitment as well,” he said.

The four institutions contacted by the town are looking for additional information, and if the concept is one that selectmen support, the town might consider drafting a promotional document for them to review.

Davis said she has seen how well cooperative research works when fisheries scientists work with commercial fishermen. “It builds trust,” she said. This kind of partnership could foster similar relationships, she noted, and it may open the door to grant opportunities. “We need to give this working group some kind of direction.”

Nicastro said he supports the efforts carried out so far and favors moving ahead.

“I really do believe it is very important for this town to be forward-looking,” he said.

“This notion frankly excites me,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. A similar concept came up “years and years ago” when the town was considering what to do with the Marconi campus in Chathamport. The town is “a perfect Petri dish, if you will, for climate change, coastal resiliency, water quality, fishing, you name it,” he said. While there’s a need to be fiscally cautious, “the notion of having downstream job creation as a result is phenomenal,” Dykens said. Any such partnership should tie in with the local schools, he added.

“I think this is the right thing to do,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said. A number of universities already send students to the Cape each summer to study marine sciences, and local fishermen are “articulate and knowledgeable” and would be an excellent resource, he added.

The idea had merit when the town considered inviting academics to locate at the Marconi campus years ago, Seldin said, and that was before the current focus on climate change and sustainability.

“I think it’s important that we take advantage of what is clearly a movement,” she said.

Goldsmith said the working group will continue to pursue the idea, and will convey the board’s enthusiasm to the four institutions.