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The Mast-Head: Now More Than Ever

Wed, 02/07/2024 - 18:00

Napeague Harbor has overflowed its usual margins a lot this winter. In the early morning, the sunrise is reflected on moving water where there should have been marsh. Ducks paddle above where two-foot-tall brown spartina would be on a normal day. The resident great blue heron appears put out and has retreated to the high ground brushy edges.

Used to be that there had to be a persistent northeast blow for the water to pile up like this. Not anymore. Early yesterday, the wind was north about nine miles per hour, nothing out of the ordinary, but a government tide gauge at Rough Riders in Fort Pond Bay, Montauk, was registering the water level as more than a foot higher than the official prediction.

From casual observation, I can assure you that we are flooding more often than even in the recent past. Pond o’ Pines reaches Lazy Point Road without apparent effect from the passing weather. In Miami and Venice, Italy, and many other places along the coasts, these have come to be called sunny-day tides.

An acquaintance who lives east of Promised Land in Amagansett said she had heard that all the water in the ground was shifting houses’ foundations. New cracks in the walls are seen. Old floors have new ridges or suddenly noticed dips. Things are changing, she concluded, and fast.

Our friends at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back up what we see here and, in fact, it is worse than I suspected. In 2020, sea level along the United States coastlines reached the second-highest level on record — one foot — relative to 1920 levels. In the Northeast where we live, “sunny-day” high-tide flooding is now twice as frequent as it was 20 years ago. The causes, NOAA explains, are rising seas, subsiding land, and the loss of natural barriers.

You think we have troubles? High-tide flooding in the Southeast U.S. is now four times greater than it was in 2003. By 2050, NOAA predicts, coastal areas could have tidal flooding as many as 75 days per year — that is more than once a week.

Higher sea levels and tides that reach deep into once mostly dry communities will eat away at lower-lying roads and other public infrastructure. For instance, planners already have conceded that a bridge would have to be built within decades about where the Montauk I.G.A. is now. No amount of sand pumped onto the beaches will hold off this and all the other inevitable changes ahead.

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