How prepared are MIT and Cambridge for rising sea levels?

Flood preparation plan in the works

5388 flooding
Extent of flooding in 100–300 years, according to The New York Times. Blue areas would be submerged if oceans rise five feet, covering MIT.
infographic by leon lin

MIT’s campus as you know it may not exist in 100 years — and if it does, it would likely have a renewed focus on ocean engineering. That’s because, according to a New York Times analysis of major U.S. cities, much of southern Cambridge would be underwater if ocean levels rise five feet, which is “probable” within 100–300 years. If levels rose 20 feet, over half of Cambridge and a third of Boston would be submerged.

MIT certainly plans to be around in 100 years (the Institute recently sold $750 million in bonds which mature in 2111, after all). So between then and now, what’s going to happen?

Preparing for climate change

Environmental changes linked to global warming — flooding being one of the more dire prospects — are on the minds of local officials, but they have not yet identified concrete steps to prepare the Boston area for rising sea levels.

“Nobody has come out and said, ‘In 2012, we recommend that we build seawalls down near the MIT campus,’” said Gerard E. Mahoney, Cambridge Emergency Management head and assistant chief of the Cambridge Fire Department. But, said Mahoney, the gears are in motion to start identifying ways that the Boston metro can protect itself.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) — which considers urban and environmental planning, energy, governance, and public health in the towns that make up metropolitan Boston — is “working on a plan” for flood preparedness, said Mahoney.

“MAPC is currently working with the City of Cambridge on an update to their Local Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, which identifies vulnerabilities from natural hazards (flooding, earthquakes, brush fires, etc.) and mitigating actions that a municipality can take to reduce the risk and impact from these hazards,” wrote Barry Keppard, a regional planner for MAPC, in an email to The Tech. The update, however, does not yet “fully [take] climate change related impacts into account,” due to plan requirements.

Keppard did note that MAPC has a regional plan, “MetroFuture,” which includes a “Regional Climate Change Adaptation Strategy” that “is looking at how changes in the climate may make us more vulnerable and how we can best prepare for and adapt to these changes.” That evaluation will eventually lead to specific recommendations on how Boston can prepare for the impact of climate change.

MetroFuture projects that the Boston area could see up to $94 billion in damage related to rising sea levels over the next century, according to its 2008 Goals and Objectives Report.

A member of MIT’s Security and Emergency Management Office did respond to an email inquiry yesterday from The Tech, but could not provide comment due to illness. Keppard said that MAPC had not yet contacted MIT regarding Cambridge’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan, but said his agency has plans to do so.

Immediate preparedness

Short of planning for the rise of the oceans themselves, how is Cambridge prepared for sudden, storm-related flooding, like what New York City, Long Island, and the Jersey Shore experienced last month during Hurricane Sandy?

“The City of Cambridge has spent millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements” to help it weather floods, according to Mahoney. “We have had some areas that have been very prone to stormwater flooding,” especially areas of filled-in land (like most of the MIT campus).

Those improvements include installation of large, several-thousand-gallon containers underground that capture stormwater, and separating systems that handle sewage from those that handle stormwater.

As far as disaster preparedness goes, Mahoney says the City encourages its residents to proactively consider what they need to do to prepare for an event like Hurricane Sandy. “Families and businesses have to plan,” he said. “What would a family need for a 24, 48, or 72-hour period to survive?”

Mahoney noted that Cambridge opened two shelters when Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, but only eight people showed up. “In a city such as this, you have a population that wants to be extremely independent. And it’s going to take the steps to assert that independence,” he said.

MIT and Harvard University present unique challenges to local emergency management officials, said Mahoney. “I always tell people that the universities are very unique: a concentrated population at risk — a city within a city.” But they are also a “tremendous resource” for the city.

“The emergency preparedness folks at MIT do a phenomenal job,” Mahoney says, drawing a contrast to the perception that relations between MIT and the City are “contentious.”

“I have held them up as a model for various private sector institutions. They are very cooperative and a great resource for us to get expert opinions.”