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Looking Out: Global Warming Tops Harbor Challenges

BOSTON — In this 10th and final installment of our summer series, “Looking Out: A New View Of Boston Harbor,” WBUR looks at the harbor’s future and the challenges it faces.

Kayakers and boaters out on Boston Harbor (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

The big challenge for Boston Harbor is global warming. One report finds that of all the cities in the United States, only three — Miami, New York and New Orleans — are at greater risk of increasing storm surges than Boston.

“This is a really serious matter,” said Pat Brandes, the executive director of the Barr Foundation. “The harbor is of course the gateway to these storms, and the surges, so there are all kinds of plans being dreamed up at the moment of big gates being put across the islands to protect us from these kinds of storm surges. The islands could be part of the solution. The islands could also be submerged.”

To save the islands from being submerged, the Barr Foundation made a tough decision. It has been one of the biggest supporters of programs to restore Boston Harbor and to get people to enjoy it — everything from Outward Bound on Thomson Island to bringing fish back to the Neponset River. But this year, the foundation decided to focus its grants on what it sees as the biggest threat to the harbor and the city of Boston: global warming.

“The change in priorities at the foundation will produce a gap in funding that many groups have been depending on for their programming and activities on the harbor,” said Peter Shelley, who led the Conservation Law Foundation’s efforts to clean up Boston Harbor.

“In some ways, the easiest part of putting together a park is coming up with the initial funding to acquire it and develop it and put up the facilities that are part of it, but what brings a park and keeps it alive is programming, and operations and maintenance of the facilities,” Shelley added.

On a water taxi out to Spectacle Island, Shelley said activities distinguish most national parks around the world from the greatest hits.

One organization that keeps programs in the Harbor Islands alive is the Island Alliance. Over the years, it received $2.6 million from the Barr Foundation to increase the number of visitors to the islands to 100,000 a year.

Tom Powers, the president of the Island Alliance, took me to the parade grounds of Fort Warren, on Georges Island. We were there on a rainy day, with not a tourist in sight. The parade grounds had been surrendered to Canada geese. But Powers had plans for the weekend.

“On Saturday, there will be vintage, or antique, baseball — baseball played with the rules of the 1880s,” Powers said. “It certainly is important as we try to get people more outdoors, more connected to their out-of-doors, that we give them something to do when they come out to an island.”

Rangers Peter Duran, left, and Phil Rahaim on Spectacle Island. Rahaim runs a fishing program that depends on private funding. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Over on Spectacle Island, park ranger Phil Rahaim runs a fishing program a couple of times a week on the pier. It’s the kind of program that relies on private money.

“A couple of weeks ago, I had a special-ed group, 23 kids, and it was an incredible day,” he said. “First, it was kind of hectic trying to get them all organized and realize they had to share a fishing pole — only six poles for that amount of kids. And we had a few groups playing tug-of-war with the pole, not wanting to take turns, and you had one group, all five kids had their hand on the fishing pole, and they were very patiently sitting there with their bait on the bottom, waiting for a bite, hoping to get a fish.”

The more people are brought to the islands, the more they will have a stake in the harbor’s future. But bringing people out is expensive, and the Island Alliance and other organizations are always looking for new funding. With the recession, they’re finding it challenging to raise that money.

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  • http://climate-research.tv/ Tim Weiskel

    Fan Mail!
    Good concluding segment for whole series.
    You may want to launch another series in the coming months as a follow-up and extension to this local reporting on the ways in which ALL American coastal cities will be having to make very swift plans for the social, economic and physical impact of rising sea levels. In fact, since nearly 80% of the world’s major cities are at or near sea lever, the whole human community needs to envision new ways to imagine its relationship to its coastal zones and settlements.
    Citizen-scientist alliances like the Cambridge Climate Research Associates (http://climate-research.tv) have begun to forge the kinds of collaboration that will be needed to assist this massive social transformation both in this country and around the world.
    Keep up the good reporting on this — the most important of our crisies of public imagination.

    Prof. T.C. Weiskel, Harvard Extension School

  • http://www.wbur.org/2010/08/11/better-under-water John Y.

    Maybe sometime in the future the computer programs predicting global warming and sea level rise will actually prove to be correct (unlike the predictions for the last 10 years). Perhaps we will even see some rise (or fall) of the sea level. Some people predict irreversable catastrophe at that point. We need better science and verification of the conclusions from that science before we completely re-organize our economic system.

  • Andy

    John Y –

    I don’t know where you get your information, but its not from the peer reviewed literature. Temperature data from numerical model and analytical predictions for the last 10 years have been well within error limits. In any event, the geologic record shows plenty of data regarding what happens to climate when rapid changes in greenhouse gases occur. Stop getting your information from blogs which usually have an axe to grind on one side or the other – start looking at science journal articles.

    Also, planners and scientists are making plans based on the trends they have observed already. Average tempatures in Boston have gone up 1 degree F since 1900. Flooding frequency in MA has increased by a factor of 3 since 1950 and annual preciptation has gone up at least 10% since 1900. These trends were all predictable (and predicted over 25 years ago) and are coming to pass.

    As the scientist in the report said – the physics here are well understood – and have been so since Svante Arrhenius first modelled this process in the late 1800s.

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