The Working Waterfront

Landscape amnesia on a changing coast

Downeast storm in 2021 was a warning shot

By Charlie Foster
Posted 2022-12-07
Last Modified 2022-12-07

The rain came quickly to Roque Bluffs on that day in June 2021. I checked the rain gauge on my home weather station and did a double take when I saw the reading: 5.3 inches of rain had fallen before most people had even roused for work.

In a typical year, June would bring an average of 2.3 inches of rain to this area of coastal Maine—for the entire month. What happens when you receive nearly twice the monthly rainfall amount in a matter of hours? Well, in this case the flood waters blew out nearly every single culvert in our town.

Amid the deluge, the two main roads that lead into town were both impassable, their underlying culverts were gone and the streams that once flowed through them were now torrents of water that bisected the pavement. Being a restoration ecologist, I took the opportunity to do a little impromptu surveying.

A resident on the other side of the washout had a medical emergency and required an ambulance.

I stopped by the first culvert in my neighborhood: a black, plastic tube that ferries water back and forth from the tides each day under a dirt road that leads to a few houses perched on a picturesque cove. To my surprise, this one was intact.

The tannin-soaked water from the salt marsh was rushing through to the bay and the dirt road was holding its own. The intact culvert owed its continued existence to the adjacent salt marsh, whose floodplain gave the water a place to spread out before exiting the estuary.

This would not be the case at the next several crossings. At each one, where small tributaries of the Englishman River typically flow like babbling brooks, I found a washed-out roadway and the roadbed strewn hundreds of feet downstream.

At the second one, I stopped and got out of the truck to inspect the damage. At that time, a helicopter flew low and slow overhead. It continued down the road at such a pace you could make out the individual rotor blades as they spun. I would later learn that the chopper was surveying for stranded residents to make sure no one needed to be rescued.

Eventually, the road crews were assembled and did a fantastic job of restoring access to the town. Thankfully, no one was injured or required emergency services during the event. Shortly after that, we all continued about our business.

The roads were fixed, and the sun was out. It ended as a banner June day for our beautiful community. As the sun set, the dark evergreen fir and spruce trees were backlit by a spectrum of pastels. Everyone will remember that day, but I’m afraid few are aware of its context.

Our climate is changing and that has consequences for those of us on the coast. It’s virtually impossible to attribute one rain event to the greater alarm bell of climate change, but the proof could lie in the anecdotal pudding.

We have an aging population in our part of the country. Many of the folks here make their living off the land or water and have done so for decades. All the people I spoke with about this event said the same thing: “That’s never happened here before.” And it’s not just our town’s flooding event that evokes that statement. Across the region, other events that may never have happened before are now occurring with regularity.

In Addison, there is a culvert that carries water underneath the East Side Road at a place called Knowles Brook. There, a sign has been erected to indicate to a passing motorist the potential for up to six feet of water on the roadway. On the day I visited, it was a normal tide, and the water was gently lapping up against the pavement.

You can delineate the floodplain of Knowles Brook (a beautiful coastal stream home to sea-run brook trout and rainbow smelt) by noting the change in topography as you traverse the East Side Road. The road slopes down from a hill and continues for about 1,000 feet, until it meanders up the next hill. In the center of that dip is the culvert. It was installed in 1993, just three years after evidence of climate change and accelerated sea level rise were mentioned in the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Back in the 1990s, the state hydrologist would design a culvert using a calculation of the estimated volume of water that would flow through the structure. Today, we know that isn’t sufficient for most places along the coast.

Since the culvert at Knowles Brook was installed, the long-term average sea level at that location has risen about seven inches. While an old-timer from Addison may have once said, “That’s never happened here before,” they would now say, “This is the second or third time it’s happened this year.”

Sea level rise isn’t just a nebulous idea; it has direct consequences on human life. Last year, the East Side Road at Knowles Brook flooded out during a high tide. At that same time, a resident on the other side of the washout had a medical emergency and required an ambulance. Instead of receiving critical care within 15 minutes (a normal response time), the ambulance had to take a detour around the peninsula which took an additional 45 minutes. The outcome was tragic and was felt by the entire community.

We refer to these events, where areas along the coast are inundated even on sunny days, as “nuisance flooding.” This is typical human behavior, to downplay the slow destruction of critical infrastructure as a “nuisance.”

Under current projections, these nuisances will be occurring ten times more frequently than they had even a decade ago. I’m afraid the transition from nuisance to unavoidable catastrophe isn’t going to be a smooth one.

In this corner of New England, people are witnessing the beginning of a sea change. Not an abrupt one, but a slow trickle, as the water gently rises over more and more roads.

In human psychology, there is a process called creeping normality, also known as landscape amnesia. Landscape amnesia is “a process by which a major change can be accepted as normal and acceptable if it happens slowly through small, often unnoticeable, increments of change.”

You might know the process of landscape amnesia better as “death by a thousand cuts.” In many parts of our region, the cuts have already begun. Low-lying roads are being bisected and entire towns are being temporarily cut off. The synergistic effect of unpredictable rain events and sea level rise is a one-two punch to the gut of budget-strapped towns and their residents.

We must act now by upgrading our infrastructure to withstand the next hundred years of tiny cuts before they add up to gaping wounds. We must fortify what we can and retreat from what we’ve already so arrogantly lost.

We need to create more resilient communities, built to be as durable as the old-timer who once watched as the trickles of water came in over the road for the first time ever, and then for the third time this year.

Charlie Foster is the associate director for the Downeast Salmon Federation and lives in Washington County.