New England doesn't often get hit by a major hurricane. But when it does happen, the damage can be significant. As time goes by, the risk grows greater. Not only are sea levels rising, but coastal development in the region continues — and as development continues, more and more valuable property is exposed to the risk of hurricane winds and storm surge flooding.

"In Boston, developers still put up new construction at risk of flooding the day it is completed," reported the Boston Globe in November (see: "For protection from the rising sea, look to Europe’s example," by Daniel Grossman). "According to a study by the Boston Harbor Association, had Hurricane Sandy reached Boston at high tide, a few hours earlier, most of the waterfront — including nearly the entire Innovation District — and many other neighborhoods would have been under 2 to 4 feet of water."

That's at today's sea level, with out taking into account future sea level rise, But sea level rise is coming to Boston. Among the low-lying institutions that will face a higher risk of flood as the seas rise is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Last month, a panel of MIT professors held a sold-out seminar at the Boston Athenæum library to brainstorm about the issue. Climate expert Kerry Emanuel talked about the risk of high-impact hurricanes, engineering professor Markus Buehler discussed the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure, and urban design professor Alan Berger talked about designing cities for resilience, particularly during recovery and rebuilding from disasters such as 2012's Superstorm Sandy.

Future-Ready Boston
MIT experts discuss the coastal weather and climate risks in Boston's future.

A video of the MIT panel session is posted on Vimeo (see: "MIT Panel, "Boston: Sink or Swim"). The experts' discussion of coastal vulnerabilities is sobering: Berger, for example, describes how he learned while studying the aftermath of Sandy that three-quarters of the New York City metropolitan area's electricity generation capacity is located in the 100-year flood zone. Berger's study group developed a plan to protect the New Jersey Meadowlands location of much of that power supply with a natural buffer zone that would also help to protect vital transportation links and food warehouses for the region. Called "Meadowband," the proposal "reclaims the storm-buffering functions of the degraded Meadowlands wetlands." The proposal tries to "protect, connect, and grow," Berger explained, with transportation elevated on protective levees and new infrastructure placed above the 500-year flood elevation.

Most of Berger's talk, however, addressed the needs and potential of the Boston area. And along with risk, Berger sees opportunity. "Usually when you see maps of what sea level rise and climate change and storm surges are going to do to cities, the developers flee the room," he said. "We see a big opportunity to redevelop the right way."