EASTON — Whether you believe in global warming or not, the state of Maryland does.
That is the message the Maryland Secretary of Planning and the Maryland Secretary of the Environment brought to those attending the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s 14th annual Planning Conference on Thursday, Oct. 3.
Secretary of Planning Richard Hall and Secretary of the Environment Dr. Robert Summers spoke at the conference’s closing talks.
Prohibited from speaking, Nicholas A. DiPasquale the Chesapeake Bay Director of the Environmental Protection Agency could not attend because he was among those on the federal government furlough.
Earlier in the day, Dr. Don Boesch of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Horn Point Laboratory, gave an overview of climate change research.
Boesch painted a compelling picture, saying the overall consensus by scientists is global warming exists and 97 percent of those scientists believe human activity is a factor.
“I think we’re very lucky to have him,” Hall said of Boesch. He said Boesch’s research has been a viable entity not only on the Eastern Shore, but throughout Maryland and nationally.
Boesch and Horn Point Laboratory led a panel of scientists who have predicted a one-and-a-half-foot sea level rise in our area by the year 2050.
It was published in an independent, scientific report earlier this year.
The report recommended that it would be prudent to prepare for the sea level along Maryland’s 3,100 miles of tidal shoreline to be 2.1 feet higher in 2050 than it was in 2000.
The panel’s best estimate was a sea level rise of 1.4 feet, but no less than 0.9 feet and no greater than 2.1 feet by 2050.
“That’s not that far away,” Hall said.
The scientists reached their conclusions by factoring in the expansion of the earth’s collective ocean volume as it warms, along with more water from the glaciers and ice sheets melting in Greenland and Antarctica. Other considerations include changing dynamics in the ocean, such as a slowing of the Gulf Stream, and vertical land movement.
“A foot-and-a-half-level rise by then is going to have a real impact on the Shore,” Hall said.
“This is something we’ve got to be taking seriously,” Summers said. “I think a lot of our friends and neighbors out there are just going about their business and are not really concerned about it.
“Of course we know that there are a lot of folks who believe that it isn’t really even happening, it’s just a natural cycle,” Summers said. He said he hoped Boesch had made a convincing case.
Summers said it is certainly higher temperatures that are causing Maryland to see outbreaks of the bacteria vibrio for the first time, which is a dangerous pathogen effecting seafood.
The harmful algal blooms, or red tide, used to be a Southern water phenomenon that has migrated into our area.
He said even though Superstorm Sandy had bypassed the Chesapeake and hit New Jersey and New York, the storm surge came within six inches of overtopping the well for the town of Crisfield.
“This is not business as usual,” Summers said. “This is a big deal.”
Eastern Shore demographics will naturally change, as well, by 2050.
“Currently, there are about 450,000 people on the Eastern Shore right now,” Hall said. “It’s projected to go to 595,000 people by the year 2040.”
He said, on average, across the state of Maryland, populations are projected to increase about 32 percent by 2050.
“The Shore tends to be a little older than the rest of the state,” he said. He reported that right now, the number of people over the age of 65 is about 17 percent on the Eastern Shore. That number is projected to rise to 25 percent in 2040.
“One out of four people will be over 65 years old,” Hall said.
The two state cabinet members indicated the lessons of Superstorm Sandy on Crisfield and Smith Island could be considered harbingers of trouble to come.
Hall said after Superstorm Sandy, when the waters receded on Smith Island, the government initially offered buy-outs for folks in low-level homes, but then realized that it could create “sort of an exodus” on the island.
There are very few people living there now, according to Hall, and the community survives on tourism and the seafood industry.
“If one family moves on or off that Island it has a very, very big impact to the community,” Hall said.
The incident raised the issue of what Smith Island will look like in 2050.
Hall said they were looking to find funding to do a detailed outreach and visits to Smith Island to talk about long-term issues with the residents.
“They aren’t going to be easy conversations,” Hall said. “It’s going to be difficult when we talk about these very low lying areas.”
Worry over the combination of potential rising seas and more people have been reflected in the creation of several state agencies aimed at trying to adjust as the changes occur.
Early in the O’Malley administration, the Maryland Climate Change Commission was created to develop strategies related to storms, impacts on health, water resources, structures, Bay and aquatic resources.
Secretary Summers said one of the goals of the Maryland Climate Change Commission was to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in Maryland by 25 percent by 2020.
Hall said also, along those lines, a component of Plan Maryland would be to identify areas that are effected by climate change, be they natural resources, existing towns, communities or areas that will be subjected to new growth.
O’Malley signed an executive order in December 2012 that directs state agencies to consider climate change in the capital programs they propose and seek funding for. The new order requires a two-foot freeboard or two feet above the floodplain elevation for a state building.
Hall also talked about the Maryland CoastSmart Communities Initiative (CCI) that provides grant funding for communities that want to reduce their vulnerabilities to the effects of sea level rise by becoming ready, adaptive and resilient.
Hall said Talbot County had received a CoastSmart grant to work on their floodplain mapping, and Queen Anne’s County and the city of Cambridge also had used CoastSmart grants for help with stormwater issues and planning.
“The things we need to do are very difficult,” Secretary Summers said. “We’ve just revised our flood maps, the floodplain levels. And they are higher here on the Shore.
“People need to build higher or build on higher ground,” he said. “We need to be changing our ordinances, not only for homes and businesses, but for water systems.
“What can we do, to try to get the word out, to try to get people concerned?” he asked.
Both Secretary Hall and Secretary Summers emphasized that reaching the public is key. They polled conference participants for ideas on getting the word out.