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Environmental Studies

Students Research Coastal Vulnerability in Maine

Posted July 23, 2012

In the fall of 2010, seven students participated in an independent study with Environmental Studies Director Phil Camill and Environmental Studies Program Manager Eileen Johnson.   The Maine Department of Environmental Protection approached Bowdoin College in the summer of 2010 for assistance in implementing the state’s new climate adaptation plan- People and Nature: Adapting to a Changing Climate-which would be a report to the Joint Standing Committee on Natural Resources.  Specifically, the Maine Coastal Program, Maine State Planning Office and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection sought assistance in developing a methodology for assessing the vulnerability of coastal structures to global climate change in order to make informed decisions for adaptation.   The students focused their research on the pilot communities of Harpswell and Brunswick. Using LiDAR data that provides highly accurate elevation information, the students modeled sea level rise in the two communities. A significant component of their study was to identify physical land and buildings at risk as well as to estimate economic losses to publicly-owned buildings, private homes, and piers and to estimate impacts on tidal marshes.  The intent of the project is to serve as a template for other coastal Maine communities to effectively determine their infrastructural vulnerability.  In the spring of 2011, LiDAR data will become available for coastal communities throughout Maine, which provides an opportunity to expand the current study.

As part of their project, the students made several presentations to a range of organizations including town officials and staff from the Town of Brunswick and Topsham, Maine State Planning Office, Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Maine Geologic Survey, Greater Portland Council of Governments, the Nature Conservancy.  Students also made a presentation specifically to the Harspwell Conservation Commission and Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.  Based upon response and comments from these meetings, the students are revising their report and will be sharing this by the end of the spring semester.  Students will be sharing preliminary results as part of the Maine Water conference to be held in March in Augusta.

Students who participated in the independent study include Melissa Anson, Krista Bahm, Maryellen Hearn, Liza Lepage, Tom Marcello, Woody Mawhinny, and Leah Wang.

During the spring semester, Maryellen Hearn and Krista Bahm will continue the study, further refining the analysis. 

"Working on the sea level rise study has helped me refresh and refine my GIS skills and develop my abilities to participate in and help organize larger-scale group projects. I have learned a lot about the possibilities and limitations of both local data and regional data, and, of course, about the implications of sea level rise itself. It has been an important study for my own scholarly development as I have the opportunity to see a project from start to... well, perhaps not "finish", but from start to the "end of the beginning." I have become more interested in coastal opportunities looking forward, although my future plans are still rather up in the air. I've really enjoyed the challenges presented (well, some more than others, but on the whole...) and I feel as though I have a much better feel for how to approach such a project, should I have the opportunity in the future."- Maryellen Hearn

Responses to the Project:

“Maine coastal communities need straight-forward tools to help them assess climate vulnerability so they can plan to become more resilient.  The Bowdoin students’ project produced an excellent approach that can be widely used.”-  Malcolm Burson, Maine DEP

“This project puts climate vulnerability into real terms for Maine’s coastal towns. Miles of road inundated and value of real estate affected are meaningful metrics that resonate at the municipal and individual levels”- Elizabeth Hertz , Director, Land Use Planning, State Planning Office

“Maine coastal communities need straight-forward tools to help them assess climate vulnerability so they can plan to become more resilient.  The Bowdoin students’ project produced an excellent approach that can be widely used.”   

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