Rhode Island Climate Change

Though the smallest state in the U.S., Rhode Island boasts more than 400 miles of coastline. Every resident lives within a 30-minute drive to the Atlantic Ocean or Narragansett Bay, New England’s largest estuary. Its pristine coastal environs is what lured America’s Gilded Age elite to its shores, brought the America’s Cup to race there for more than 50 years, and enticed presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy to summer in the Ocean State’s warm, salty breeze. But today, many of Rhode Island’s coastal communities are under threat. 

The impact of climate change in Rhode Island is experienced most intensely throughout its 21 coastal communities, which account for more than half of the state’s municipalities. Rapid sea level rise, extreme tides, coastal flooding and intense storm surge are just some of the ongoing threats that have been closely studied at both the state and national level. 

“We’re seeing the manifestation of sea level rise through some of our extreme high tides,” says Pam Rubinoff, a Coastal Management and Climate Extension Specialist at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center. Rubinoff has been studying coastal resiliency for more than 30 years and educating leaders on how they can enact policy and make plans to strengthen and safeguard communities.

Rhode Island is no stranger to extreme weather. The Great 1938 Hurricane, which unfolded before NOAA’s National Hurricane Center began naming such storms, wreaked havoc throughout the state, decimating cities and towns and changing the landscape of entire swaths of land. In Westerly, located in the southernmost part of the state, a storm surge wave estimated to be nearly 50 feet obliterated homes, businesses, marinas and more. A surge in Jamestown swept a school bus carrying eight children into the sea. Newport had a surge of nearly 20 feet, causing the loss of its oceanfront boardwalk which had a roller coaster and amusements, and the City of Providence, located at the convergence of two rivers and Narragansett Bay, was submerged under nearly 20 feet of water. 

A year later, a NOAA tidal gauge was placed in Newport, which over the decades has given city, state, and federal officials, including those at Naval Station Newport, long-term records and valuable data. “So the state has projections that they are going by for their policy and planning,” says Rubinoff. Various resilience programs and other climate change mitigation efforts have been proposed and implemented across the state. Coastal improvement projects include green infrastructure projects; dune grass planting and restoration to provide natural flood protection, and preserving coastal wetlands and shoreline vegetation. “Gray” infrastructure projects can include jetties, berms, and sea and flood walls. 

But there’s no one size fits all solution, says Rubinoff. “I think you really have to decide where you’re going to focus those efforts because they are costly,” she explains. “It’s going to be area by area.What might work in Newport may not work in Wickford.” Barrington, for example, is one of Rhode Island’s more vulnerable communities, with sea-level data projections showing parts of the low-lying town will be underwater by 2035. 

Says Rubinoff, “Each area is going to need to make some choices…The resilience teams are both looking at today and looking at the future as well.”