Conservationists Take To The Skies To Observe Rising Sea Levels Along The Maine Shoreline

Jan 25, 2019

This past Tuesday, more than 20 volunteer pilots around the country took to the skies to record the effects of a natural phenomenon that happens twice a year: a King Tide.

The pilots are part of an unusual Colorado-based organization known as LightHawk that has been working since the 1970's to conserve wildlife and large landscapes and to document the effects of climate change from the air.

At the height of the King Tide, on a blustery, clear and freezing cold morning, a plane took off from the Portland Jetport and traveled along southern Maine's shoreline. Other flights departed from New Hampshire, New Jersey and Florida and from several states on the west coast.

It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and from a thousand feet above the ground the perspective widens. That can be especially helpful for researchers and policymakers.

Diamond Pass, Great Diamond Island, Little Diamond Island, Casco Bay, bluffs, beaches, dunes
Credit Peter Slovinsky / LightHawk

"We're doing these flights today to look at King Tides and how they're starting to inundate further into inland areas," says Jonathan Milne, the eastern program director for LightHawk.

When it comes to planning for something like sea level rise, a King Tide is a good snapshot into the future. It's the time on the calendar when the moon and the sun align in a certain way to create the highest tides of the year, in this case January 22.

LightHawk’s nearly 200 volunteer pilots have assisted in projects as diverse as tracking the Florida algae blooms this past summer, to showing the effects of drought along the Colorado River, to coordinating the transport of endangered California condors between Idaho and the Golden state.

Portland Waterfront, piers, wharves, Commercial Street, working waterfront
Credit Peter Slovinsky / LightHawk

On this day, though, pilots have been deployed along the two coasts with a similar mission in mind.

"We're flying a variety of locations to show people that once that tide's all the way up, we start to see how far that sheath is starting to go,” says Milne. “So then we can see roads and stuff and see how close the water's actually coming to those roads."

Peter Slovinsky, is a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. But for the purpose of this flight he's a volunteer tour guide for the Surfrider Foundation, an international nonprofit that focuses on coastal issues such as pollution, beach access, offshore drilling and sea level rise.

"Now there's the wastewater treatment plant,” he says. “That's the Ogunquit Sewer Treatment Plant right there to your right, one of the most at-risk pieces of infrastructure in the state of Maine."

LightHawk Volunteer Peter Slovinsky, Rep. Lydia Blume and Pilot Jamie Gamble - Slovinsky is especially interested in showing Blume areas of the coast at risk for flooding.
Credit Peter Slovinsky / LightHawk

Slovinsky is especially interested in showing Rep. Lydia Blume, a Maine lawmaker who serves on the Marine Resources Committee, areas of the coast at risk for flooding. Nuisance flooding in Portland, for example, used to be about five times per year.

“Over the last 20 years or so, that's up to about ten times per year, on average,” he says. “And then if you take into account even just minimal amounts of sea level rise, like one foot, there's about a ten-fold increase in nuisance flooding, so what would be flooded once is flooded ten times."

This week data scientists from First Street Foundation and Columbia University released peer-reviewed research that found increased tidal flooding caused by sea level rise has eroded home values in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine by more than $400 million dollars between 2005 and 2017. That flooding is only expected to increase over the next 15 years.

For Rep. Blume, the LightHawk flight gave her a little window on that world. She says she could see how vulnerable some structures are along the shore, and she'd like to see other cities and towns follow the lead of her town.

Long Sands Beach, bath house, seawall, Route 1A
Credit Peter Slovinsky / LightHawk

"Sea level rise has been something that my town of York has done some work on, has put it in their comprehensive planning, and I feel like it's a very important thing that all of Maine needs to address and we need to take more of a lead on it from a state perspective," says Blume.

To that end, Blume has a bill, being introduced for a third time, to help Maine's 145- coastal communities plan for that scenario, along with state guidance for best practices. A separate bill, modeled on one in New Hampshire, would create a Coastal Hazards and Risks Commission.

"To really look at and assess: what are our vulnerabilities? What can we do for adaptation? What has worked? What's not working?” she says.

Blume says she expects the bill, which was blocked by former Gov. LePage, to pass this session. She's also supporting a $50 million bond to help cities and towns pay for some of the costs of mitigation.