If you thought November was unusually warm, you weren’t alone. “Climate change is really happening,” says Brown University professor Steven Hamburg, “Narragansett Bay is experiencing it.” Hamburg’s comments, made during a November 16 symposium sponsored by Save The Bay, echo the findings of an October report issued by the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Within the next few decades, Northeast temperatures will rise 2.5 to four degrees in the winter and one to three degrees in the summer — regardless of what policy changes are made, according to the UCS report, because the changes set in motion by past fossil fuel burning cannot be reversed.
If high levels of emissions continue, the report predicts, the Northeast will drastically change by 2100, with the temperature on 14-to-28 days a year climbing above 100 degrees (instead of the current one or two); more droughts, of one to three months; and an eight-inch-to-three-foot rise in sea levels.
The Northeast (New England, plus New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) can play a major role in controlling global warming, according to UCS and Save The Bay. If it were a nation, the region would rank seventh in the world in emissions, just ahead of Canada and the United Kingdom.
Scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the United States Geological Survey say global warming has already contributed to fish population declines, coastline erosion, and higher sea levels in Rhode Island.
Global warming is not just temperature change, notes USGS coastal marine biologist S. Jeffress Williams, “but also ecosystem change.” Harbor photographs of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, demonstrate how New England sea levels have risen about one foot in the last 100 years. Williams attributes half of the increase to the expansion of warmer seawater and melting ice, and the other half to the sinking of New England’s land mass. USGS models predict sea levels will rise another 21-to-33 inches by 2100.
Rising sea levels will increase beach erosion, Williams predicts, destroy coastal habitats, contaminate drinking water aquifers, and worsen hurricane impacts. Currently, the Cape Cod National Seashore loses one-to-two feet of seashore a year, William notes. And a moderate or Category 3 hurricane heading toward Cape Cod’s Bourne Bridge, according to a USGS model, would cause a 13-foot storm surge in Providence harbor.
Global warming is also producing subtle environmental changes, says retired URI professor Grace Klein-MacPhee. Experiments indicate that an increase of three-to-four degrees Fahrenheit may decrease the abundance of winter flounder, one of Narragansett Bay’s most important commercial species. Since the 1970s, bay temperatures have already increased by two-to-five degrees, Klein-MacPhee notes. At higher temperatures, fewer winter flounder eggs hatch, according to URI studies. In addition, predators, mainly sand shrimp, become more active and eat more eggs before they hatch. Finally, higher temperatures alter growth cycles of flounder food sources.
To slow the warming, Save The Bay coastal ecologist Marci Cole urges reducing carbon dioxide emissions by recycling, using compact florescent light bulbs, and properly inflating automobile tires. She also urges people to lobby Governor Donald Carcieri to join the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.