Top 10 stories of 2012 — No. 10: Rising seas, changing environments


Darien Long Island Sound Sally Knowlton-Keen

Longtime Darien resident Sally Knowlton-Keen looks out onto the salt marsh on her property that feeds into the Long Island Sound. She is concerned that development is harming the fragile wetlands. (Darien Times/David DesRoches)

As a coastal community, Darien is especially vulnerable to rising seas, so when news hit that the Long Island Sound and waters in the Northeast are rising three to four times faster than the global average, The Darien Times decided to examine the problem by publishing a four-part series on the health of the Long Island Sound.

With nearly 17 miles of coastline in Darien — and 322 miles in Connecticut — private property owners remain on the front lines of protecting the littoral ecosystem, and balancing that with the need to keep their properties livable can be a daunting challenge.

Many scientists predict sea levels to rise worldwide by up to three feet by the end of this century, according to a report by the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change. Sea level rise in the Northeast U.S. has increased by roughly a 10th of an inch every year since 1990, much faster than in other places. Scientists claim variations in sea level rise are caused by changes in ocean circulation, variations in temperature and salinity, and from changes in gravity as the Earth’s rotation fluctuates.

Researchers estimate that approximately two-thirds of the coastal wetlands in the U.S. will be lost if the sea level rises three feet, which could lead to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because salt marshes regulate climate and oxygen levels on a global scale.

Michael Tone, former chairman of Darien’s Environmental Protection Commission, said that as the coastline diminishes with the rising waters, many property owners will have little recourse to save their land because of strict wetland regulations and protection measures.

Tone said a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey showing the rate of sea level rise is “yet another report which underscores the importance of global warming and the consequences of it.”

“If in fact the projections in the report are valid and accurate… than it will have a significant effect on coastal communities sooner rather than later,” Tone said.

Sea level increases can not only reduce coastal property owners’ lot sizes, but could also lead to salinization of groundwater supplies, which would most directly affect coastal homes with well water systems. Other problems could include coastal erosion, wetland and coastal plain flooding, salinization of aquifers and soils, and a loss of habitats for plants and animals.

Darien resident Sally Knowlton-Keen has been on the front lines of this complex situation, having watched the slow disappearance of the marsh as water meets development.

“Perhaps I began noticing the marsh changing 20 years ago,” Knowlton-Keen said. “Every year there has been an ever larger expanse of mud and sad, empty mounds where the grasses once flourished so tall.”

In Darien, as in most New England communities, the coast is heavily developed, leaving little room for migrating marshes, one of the most biologically important ecosystems on the planet.

“For most of my life, the houses surrounding the marsh had never changed,” Knowlton-Keen said. “Then a series of tear-downs and additions began and I began to worry that the marsh was dying, not just changing.”

Invasive species are also cause for concern. Phragmites, an invasive tall reed that grows on shorelines, poses a threat to the wetland ecosystems because its rapid growth requires it to absorb most soil nutrients, to the detriment of native species, according to a report by the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection. It also grows too thick for nesting of most native birds.

As these reeds flourish, the entire salt marsh can dry, leaving the numerous birds, fish and mollusks without a place to nest. It’s estimated that from one-half to two-thirds of the fish harvested from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for food spent part of their lives in salt marshes or estuaries.

Lobsters are one species that don’t spend much time near the marsh, but they do contribute significantly to the $8 billion regional economy that the Long Island Sound provides annually. All commercial fishing in Connecticut is an $80 million annual industry, according to the state.

But the lobster population has been steadily in decline since a massive die-off in 1999. Lobstermen estimate they are losing $18 million a year because of the disappearing lobster, which, state officials claim, is caused by low oxygen levels, or hypoxia.

Many lobstermen, however, say it’s because of pesticides. A study over the summer confirmed many of their worst fears — pesticides, the kind used to kill mosquitoes and their larvae, were found in several lobsters caught off the coast of Norwalk.

David Simpson, director of marine fisheries at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said it’s time to take a closer look at how insecticides interact with the lobster, which is an arthropod, the same phylum classification as insects.

“Now we see [pesticides] can possibly go into the sound,” Simpson said, “we need to take a much closer look at not only the source, but what effects do they have on lobsters themselves.”

Darien lobsterman Bill Frate said this study should have happened 13 years ago. Simpson emphasized people should not be afraid to eat lobster, as the chemicals are only present in liver and fatty tissue, not in the lean meat.

Concerns about the Sound culminated in July, when the Shoreline Preservation Task Force convened in Fairfield to discuss rising seas, flooding problems and severe weather events.

One thing that might help is creating incentives for residents and towns to develop and maintain properties in line with certain environmental standards, said Alicia Mozian, Westport’s conservation director and representative of the Long Island Sound Assembly, a 72-member panel that submits annual reports to the General Assembly on the use and preservation of the sound.

In 1995, Mozian helped bring Westport into FEMA’s Community Rating System, which allows residents in that town to get discounts on home insurance as the town adopts stringent flood mitigation strategies and floodplain management systems.

There are currently only 12 Connecticut towns on the FEMA system, although five towns are rated 10, which is essentially the same as a town not involved in the program. Stamford is rated 7, meaning residents in that town are eligible for a 15% discount, depending on where they live. If a town earns a 1, residents can get up to 45% off. Westport is rated 8.

Much has also been done at the legislative level. The General Assembly set a goal to include sea level rise when planning coastal development, and modified coastal site plan approval requirements for shoreline flood and erosion control structures. If there’s money available, lawmakers authorized the state’s environmental commissioner to establish a pilot program to encourage innovative and low-impact approaches to shoreline protection and adaptation to sea level rise.

Lawmakers also set rules for reducing phosphorus emissions into waterways. There is also a renewed emphasis on collaboration with the state’s university system to develop strategies to help counteract the effects of climate change, rising seas, flooding and severe storms.

But there is still much to be done, said Darien’s Knowlton-Keen, who teaches art at Hindley School.

“There is so much we need to learn and we are running out of time,” Knowlton-Keen said. “Maybe education is the place to start.”

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  • Doright

    Saying water levels are rising faster in Darien is like saying the chicken broth in my soup bowl is higher on one side than the other. The data is obviously wrong just like the rest of the global warming junk science. The seas are not rising…..didnt you hear….Obama was elected.

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