Portland Pier flooding
Flooding Monday morning, Dec. 6, on Portland Pier when a storm coincided with a king tide. (Courtesy Gulf of Maine Research Institute)
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A collaboration between the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Portland Museum of Art may be an important step toward a wider acknowledgment of climate change in Portland’s own backyard.

Experts on weather, the environment, and the arts engaged in a discussion centered around climate change inspired by work by artist Clifford Ross. The artwork, on exhibit through December at the museum, depicts pre-storm waves on the coast of Long Island, New York.

Panelists remotely shared their thoughts on the impact of water on the local area and explained the ways in which they’re seeing Portland’s everyday marine environment changing in the public event on Dec. 2. They also outlined specific steps that can be taken to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Dave Reidmiller, director of the climate center at GMRI, said the intent behind the event was to broaden awareness of local climate change issues and catalyze additional conversation and action.

The collaboration was followed up Monday, Dec. 6, with an event that coincided with a king tide and featured GMRI sea-level rise expert Gayle Bowness documenting water level and flooding impacts on Commercial Street.

In an email, Reidmiller said around 30 people attended the event as they observed “real, tangible illustrations of what the coming years and decades will look like.” He noted the importance of both events in hammering that idea home to ensure communities prepare accordingly.

Ivy Frignoca, the Casco Baykeeper for Friends of Casco Bay, said she appreciated the opportunity to talk about the different ways people interact with nature: one being a pleasant way, admiring its beauty through the photos, and another being the “profound negative impact” people can have.

Being such a widespread, global issue, Frignoca said that the size of the problem may overwhelm people, while Reidmiller said it may cause people to think the issue doesn’t affect them, and that it’s a future dilemma.

Jan Piribeck, professor emeritus in the University of Southern Maine Art Department, said his art is used in many important ways to provide insight into multiple layers of meaning behind the waves, including the connection to weather systems and climate change.

The global scale of climate change – including things like sea-level rise, warmer water, and more frequently recurring storms – can be found right now in the Gulf of Maine, Reidmiller said, where water temperatures are rising higher than 95 to 99 percent of the world’s oceans depending on the year.

“This is happening now, this is happening in our own backyard,” he said. “We’ve had king tides throughout history, that’s not new, what’s new is that these king tides are occurring on top of rising seas.”

Increasing water temperature is just the start. John Cannon, marine program manager at the National Weather Service in Gray, said warmer water allows wind and waves to build even more than normal, meaning more damage and flooding from storms.

He also said storms aren’t weakening as much as they typically would when moving north because of warmer temperatures, which means stronger storms like hurricanes are becoming more frequent in northern Atlantic areas.

Frignoca said solutions apply to a global scale when it comes to climate change, but the implementation must be local. Especially for Casco Bay, she said, individuals must continue to act locally in any way they can. 

She said that not only do we need to reduce the causes of climate change, but there must be efforts to deal with consequences that are already present.

One way to help track climate change around Casco Bay is by becoming a water reporter. Using the Friends of Casco Bay app, participants can document evidence of climate change such as erosion, pollution, and sea level rise and provide that information to experts.

Reidmiller said the solutions start with individuals and must culminate with collective action. “We still control our future,” he said – things like updating our electrical grid, reducing carbon emissions by driving less or weatherizing houses are just some examples of steps that are accessible right now.

As for specifics, more tide gauges are needed along the coast of Maine. “From Portland to Bar Harbor,” Cannon said, “is probably the largest gap on the coast in the United States with a lack of tide gauges.” 

The tide gauges would help provide useful baseline data on what is a complicated coastline geographically, according to Reidmiller. More of them collecting more data could help provide more confidence in predictions of things like sea level rise and ocean circulation changes.

He added that GMRI has hired a new sea-level rise scientist to help figure out how to fill in those data gaps and provide finer-scale information to inform future predictions.