Rising Tides, Sinking Shores: Massachusetts’ Coastal Crisis

Massachusetts has over 1,500 miles of coastline vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. According to the Healey-Driscoll administration, approximately 2.5 million people call these coastal communities home. Over half live in areas known as “Environmental Justice Block Groups.” These communities, including populations of color, low-income residents, and many with limited English proficiency, are especially vulnerable to coastal flooding and the impact of rising sea levels.

As increasing ocean levels rise at an accelerating rate, Massachusetts’ extensive coastline becomes increasingly at risk. Coastal communities like Boston, with its dense waterfront development, face especially severe threats. Recent data from NOAA shows that sea levels along the Massachusetts coast have already risen 11 inches since 1921,  exceeding the global average increase of 7-8 inches. Projections indicate seas could rise another 4 to 10 feet by 2100. This would mean 150 to 365 tidal flood days per year in Boston under intermediate scenarios versus around 22 days today. This rise in sea level, combined with coastal storms, is expected to lead to significant flooding and economic impacts in Boston neighborhoods by the mid to late century. The consequences could be devastating, with projections indicating the total cost of storm damages in Boston alone during this century could reach $5-100 billion.

Rising seas also threaten Massachusetts’ coastal wetlands, which provide critical habitat and protect against flooding. Around one-third of the state’s coastal wetlands have been lost since the 1800s due to development and rising sea levels. As water levels increase, many remaining wetlands will be permanently submerged, threatening habitats for many bird and fish species and leaving communities more vulnerable to dangerous storm surges. 

Many jobs in Massachusetts, like fishing, tourism, and beach-related activities, depend on a healthy coast. As rising sea levels cause more flooding, these jobs could be lost, hurting families and businesses across the state. And with more money spent repairing coastal flooding damage, less may be available for schools, hospitals, and roads. While Massachusetts has begun preparing for these impacts through its Coastal Resilience Plan and Municipal Vulnerability Program, the scale of the challenge is daunting. Massachusetts is spending over $1 billion on projects like Boston’s Resilient Harbor plan to protect coastal communities from rising sea levels and associated flooding risks. Reducing these risks requires quickly cutting the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. But with further sea level rise now inevitable, Massachusetts must also accelerate its efforts to protect its coast. Potential strategies include moving high-risk infrastructure, restoring coastal wetlands, and determining the best approach to protect from or retreat in the face of rising water levels. The stakes could not be higher as climate change transforms the state’s shores.