The Gulf of Maine Research Institute: Community Resilience Project

A Maine research group is building climate resilience through community conversation
Words By Jenny O’Connell

Picture yourself walking down Commercial Street in Portland, past piers lined with lobster traps and seafood restaurants, bustling redbrick storefronts, artists selling handicrafts, and tourists lining up for the afternoon cruise on Casco Bay. Foghorns blast through the salty air, and the scent of baking pizza wafts out of open restaurant windows. The street has such personality that it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t always been this way. But if you look at a map of Portland from the 1700s, Commercial Street—as well as Back Cove and Bayside—was underwater.

“The places that flood first are the places where the water used to be,” says Gayle Bowness, Municipal ClimateActionProgram Manager for theGulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI). And according to sea level projections, in the next 80 years, these places—along with many other parts of Maine’s coastline—could be submerged again.

As Maine faces a potential 1.3 to 2.8 feet of sea level rise by 2050, GMRI is one of many organizations helping communities plan for resilience.

You’ve heard this before: sea level is rising. For a lot of us, those words are often accompanied by feelings of existential anxiety and detached despair. We’re facing more flood events, and a potential 1.3 to 2.8 feet of sea level rise by 2050. As the climate warms, we’ll see shorter winters, more high-heat days, and an increase in extreme precipitation events. Different species are following food and cooler temperatures northward as our land and waters warm. But there’s good news, too: Maine is full of hopeful, motivated organizations and individuals who are working to prepare communities for climate resilience. And one of the best ways to meet this moment is simply to start the conversation.

“Let’s stop feeling overwhelmed,” says Gayle. “We have the data. We’re smart; we’ve done amazing things in the past. We have time—not a lot of time, but we have enough time—to figure out good decisions.”

Gayle works on GMRI’s Community Resilience Training project, which supports coastal communities in building capacity for the climate knowledge, data skills, and relationships that allow for complex conversations around shared values, hopes, and vulnerabilities. Over the past two years, GMRI has facilitated conversations with more than 2,000 Maine residents in 32 communities ranging from York to Mount Desert Island to explore what’s at risk with sea level rise, and how their values can guide their decisions. Gayle also facilitates GMRI’s Coastal Flooding Community Science project, which, alongside other Maine climate organizations, engages community members in contributing important water level data during flooding events.

“We need to really normalize talking about climate change and climate impacts in a way that’s productive,” says GMRI’s Gayle Bowness. “In a way that can promote action.”

Why does GMRI believe in a community approach? “You can’t insulate yourself from climate risks by protecting your house in isolation,” says Climate Center Director David Reidmiller. “You can harden your waterfront with a giant sea wall, but that can deflect the water to the neighboring roadway, and then the thoroughfare you rely on to get to the hospital is flooded because of the seawall you built. You have to think about it more holistically. If we take these steps as a community, you will be protected.”

“Frontline communities like tribal nations, new Mainers, those in poverty, people of color, and more are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis,” writes Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Ambassador and Maine Climate Council member. “If we overlook their needs and experiences, we are not only doing them a disservice, we are setting back all of our work because it will be less effective in meeting our goals. A society is only as strong as its most vulnerable populations, and this holds true in climate work. As we make policy, we need to work from a place of inclusivity and equity to make sure our work is lasting and meaningful.”

So, where to start? Pay attention to what’s happening in your community, suggests Gayle. Is climate part of your community’s comprehensive plan? When is that plan up for review? Does your town have a climate or sustainability committee you can support? If not, ask why. Can you start one? “We need to really normalize talking about climate change and climate impacts in a way that’s productive,” Gayle says. “In a way that can promote action.”

Climate Resilient Practices for Homeowners:

  1. Shift your landscaping to include more salt-tolerant plants.
  2. Support ocean health by discontinuing the use of pesticides.
  3. Construct rain gardens for extreme rain events.
  4. Get roots in the ground to mitigate coastal erosion.
  5. If you’re remodeling or building a new home, flood-proof your basement, or move essential utilities up to the first floor.
  6. Reduce greenhouse gases by installing a heat pump, choosing energy-efficient appliances, and weatherizing your home.
  7. Support nature-based solutions by pitching in to restore sand dunes, seagrasses, tidal salt marshes, and other natural wave barriers.
  8. Vote people into office who will champion climate issues.
  9. Familiarize yourself with FEMA’s flood insurance program.
  10. Engage in climate-related community science. For examples and more information, check out investigate.gmri.org.
  11. Join or start the climate conversation in your local community.
 

Sources:
Gayle Bowness, Gulf of Maine Research Institute
Maine Climate Council, “Maine Won’t Wait: A Four Year Plan for Climate Action”