State outlines climate threats, possible responses

Poland Brook is pushed over its banks in Conway due to heavy rains.

Poland Brook is pushed over its banks in Conway due to heavy rains. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The Deerfield River laps up to Stillwater Road in Deerfield.

The Deerfield River laps up to Stillwater Road in Deerfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


State House News Service

Published: 10-13-2023 9:28 AM

BOSTON — Fifty years from now, Massachusetts could see as much as 42% more winter precipitation, average summertime temperatures in line with North Carolina’s current climate, and a 4.3 feet rise in sea levels along the its coast as coastal flooding inflicts 550% more damage to state-owned properties.

Based on the findings of the 2022 Massachusetts Climate Change Assessment, the Healey administration this week unveiled its updated (and federally-mandated) Statewide Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan, which it is calling “ResilientMass,” to detail nearly 150 actions state government could take to prepare for extreme weather events that are becoming more common and more intense.

“This is the year that changed everything. We saw frosts, floods, extreme heat, and fires devastate our communities,” Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer said. “These weather events are only expected to increase. ResilientMass represents a whole-of-government approach to ensure that every agency is working toward a more resilient, healthy future. With this plan, we see the power of collaboration in preparing for natural disasters.”

Flooding from precipitation, coastal flooding and erosion due to sea level rise, and high heat were identified as the most significant hazards to Massachusetts.

“The climate crisis is our greatest threat and greatest opportunity,” Healey wrote in an introduction to the report. “The ResilientMass Plan acknowledges that state government must lead in guarding against the natural hazards and exacerbated impacts of climate change. We will seize the moment to build a thriving, resilient Commonwealth for all of our residents and for future generations.”

Farms in western Massachusetts and homes in other parts of the state were devastated by flooding this summer and the ResilientMass report identified inland flooding as the most significant climate hazard in Massachusetts, with rainfall events anticipated to increase in both frequency and intensity.

To address the risk, the report said the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Department of Conservation and Recreation and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency will develop a statewide floodplain management plan. Additionally, the Executive Office of Economic Development will lead an evaluation of flood resilient construction standards in the state building code and develop a guide for municipalities to take zoning actions to strengthen resilience to flooding. And the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities will implement resilience improvements to reduce flooding and heat risks at vulnerable state-aided public housing.

The ResilientMass report is based on the assumption that average temperatures are certain to rise in the coming decades. The administration said that average summertime temperatures in Massachusetts will feel like those in Maryland in 2050, North Carolina in 2070, and Georgia in 2090.

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“Humidity will rise as well, causing hot days to feel even hotter. These changes could have significant consequences for human and ecosystem health, as human populations and ecosystems in Massachusetts are not adapted or accustomed to these temperatures,” the report said.

One initiative the report identified to deal with the threat of extreme heat involves the Executive Office of Health and Human Services coordinating a multiagency effort to develop and implement a new “Heat Flag system” to effectively communicate heat risk to the public, and for other parts of state government to make more shaded areas and cooling structures available.

Massachusetts is planning for sea level rise of up to 2.5 feet by 2050 and 4.3 feet by 2070 (both compared to 2008 sea level) if global emissions are not significantly curtailed. The current annual average damage to coastal buildings in Massachusetts is about $185 million, but the ResilientMass report projects that amount will nearly double by 2030 due to changes in sea level and storm surge.

Sea level rise could affect almost half of all Massachusetts residents in coming decades. Already about 43% of the state’s population lives in coastal communities, and the populations in most of those cities and towns are expected to increase.

The Office of Coastal Zone Management will take the lead in preparing Massachusetts for a higher sea level by developing a coastal resilience strategy that considers climate-resilient development and standards in vulnerable areas and developing best practices for coastal adaptation, the administration said. CZM will also develop best practices for the redesign of seawalls and revetments considering climate change.

EEA and MEMA awarded $6.3 million in funding to state agencies to implement key ResilientMass plan actions, including resilience improvements at state-aided public housing authorities, expanding the Climate Smart Agriculture program, and updating environmental regulations to consider climate change impacts.

EEA also has launched a new Office of Climate Science to “increase state agency, municipal, and public access and understanding of statewide climate change projections and trends and to provide technical assistance and guidance,” and has hired a new deputy director of climate resilience and finance.