Climate change

(Oct. 11, 2019) When the United Nations released a report on Sept. 25 citing concerns about how climate change affects coastal communities, its experts might have checked here first.

Had the 100 or so scientists who compiled the results of some 7,000 studies for the report bothered to ask, Ocean City Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin, Coastal Bays Executive Director Frank Piorko, and scientist Bill Dennison at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies could have told them what’s happening. Also, Ocean City Planning Director Bill Neville could have filled them in on what’s being done about it.

Arbin, who routinely takes the water temperature, said his data fits in with the findings he sees from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“I can look at data from the North Pole and see that there’s less Arctic ice than there used to be, which can lead to a rise in the level of the ocean, sea levels,” Arbin said. “That would have an impact on all coastal, not just Ocean City.” 

Despite this, Arbin is confident that Ocean City had already mitigated its carbon footprint as much as possible through beach replenishment, an extensive transportation system, the trash to energy program, and the lack of factories.

Even so, rising ocean temperatures have already had adverse effects, according to Dennison, a professor of marine science and vice president for science application at the Center for Environmental Studies.

“Those increasing temperatures cause the bacteria to respire more, and they consume oxygen,” Dennison said. “It leads to an oxygen problem in the water. We’ve got nighttime oxygen consumption rates causing late-night, early-morning events where we have no oxygen in the water. That’s bad for sea life.” 

Dennison said the higher water temperatures are pushing some species out of the bays, including eelgrass, which is disappearing from the Chincoteague Bay. These higher temperatures also could push tropical life into the Ocean City area at some point.

Dennison added that the heat has caused salt marsh erosion and a record number of phytoplankton blooms in the St. Martin River. As a result, barrier islands, particularly in Fenwick and Assateague, could look very different in the future, Dennison said. 

“Water quality is one of the important amenities for people visiting the coast,” Dennison said. “Maintaining that is one of the major thrusts of the Maryland Coastal Bays program and all the activity that the parks service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and all the other managers in the region are trying to achieve. I think it does have ramifications for quality of life and economic progress in the region.” 

Like Arbin, Dennison is confident that Ocean City and Maryland are doing as much as possible to mitigate carbon emissions and maintain healthy sea life. 

“We’re already making major strides in reducing our nutrients and sediments and toxins from the flow of the land into the Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteague Bay and into our rivers,” Dennison said. “That effort is really critical to build resilience for the impacts of climate change.” 

Despite the strategies to prevent climate change, some effects are inevitable. Dennison said that even if carbon production completely stops, sea levels will continue to rise.

 Neville is preparing for that reality. 

“Our response as a local government is really focused on how do we manage the land uses here on the barrier island and protect the investment people have made in the community and continue to provide that recreational resource for the state and our region,” Neville said. 

He said the Ocean City Council and Mayor Rick Meehan are working with the federal emergency management agency (FEMA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to develop a hazardous mitigation plan and to replenish area beaches, respectively. One strategy was adopting a flood plain ordinance in 2015 to add a foot of freeboard to buildings. 

“It gives the community the option in the future, if we have to raise the streets or the stormwater drainage structures, that town infrastructure can be raised potentially without having to raise all the other homes or structures on either side of the street,” Dennison said. “That’s one of the questions we’re going to be working on this year as well.” 

Dennison said that Ocean City is fortunate to have the Maryland Coastal Bays program (MCB) and the Green Team to lead community outreach. The Coastal Bay’s Piork said the program recently worked with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on rehabilitating Assateague Island. 

“We constructed a living shoreline solution, a partial solution because there’s never a 100 percent solution, to delay some of that climate impact so it can remain accessible for the public,” Piorko said. “The shoreline won’t continue to erode at three feet a year like it had been eroding.” 

Another project for the program, according to him, will be to study how to design roads that can withstand frequent flooding. As for the rising ocean temperatures, Piorko and the team acknowledge they may have to take on extra monitoring efforts and change the conservation plan. 

“It may mean that different species of plants are replaced by other plants,” Piorko said. “What does that mean for those animals that feed on those plant species or those plants that are the nursery for other fish? There’s a lot of thought being given to what happens when those plant and animal species might need to be replaced, moved, or need to adapt to different changing environments that are impacted by climate.” 

Changing fish and plant species could also affect the fishing industry. Despite these impending changes, Piorko and Neville are confident that Ocean City is doing everything it can for the local level. 

“The good news, and I think they’ve [climate reports] continue to reflect – we’re looking far enough out in the future at some of these impacts that there’s still time to make a difference,” Neville said. 

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