This article is the first of a two-part series about New Hampshire communities on the frontlines of climate change. Part two will be published Monday, July 18.
Those living on the New Hampshire Seacoast are intimately aware of the impacts of climate change. They’ve watched high tides draw closer over the years, flooding their streets and homes. The ocean that drew them here now threatens their ability to stay.
As sea levels rise, communities are scrambling to adapt to the new reality.
Steve Belgiorno, a retired math teacher, has seen the flooding worsen since he first bought a house in Hampton in 2005. In 2017, he said, a nightmare storm ruined the house’s boiler, hot water tank, and flooring, leaving marsh grass and kelp in exchange. “We’re the Titanic,” he said.
The flooding strains town resources, too. A fire truck was substantially damaged in a 2018 flood after it was driven through stormwater to respond to an emergency. Salt water is corrosive and can destroy vehicles. It also eats away at home foundations. Belgiorno pays a company thousands of dollars to reseal his foundation every few years, but the cracks inevitably return.
Tom Bassett didn’t think about flooding when he bought a home in Hampton in 2002, but now he documents each one. While big storms used to drive the flooding, now a king tide is enough to deposit nearly a foot of water in low-lying areas.
Bassett raised his house 10 feet above the ground in 2007 and has no plans to leave – even if the situation gets worse. But he worries about getting stranded without access to emergency services, like when his daughter lived with him during her pregnancy.
Residents like Bassett want to leave their homes to the next generation but fear climate change will eliminate that possibility. In the meantime, flooding shapes their daily routines.
“These tide charts are like our bible. We live by them,” said Debra Bourbeau, who started coming to Hampton in 2010. The charts help her and other residents predict when their streets will fill with water and become impassable, an event residents have come to expect as frequently as each month.
Bourbeau and Belgiorno worked with the town to pass an ordinance that allows residents in the lowlands to park on higher ground whenever a tide over 10 feet is in the forecast. But adaptation doesn’t erase the problem. “Despite these mitigation measures, the Town of Hampton continues to experience disproportionate property damage due to flooding when compared to the rest of the State of New Hampshire,” according to a December 2021 report by the Department of Environmental Services.
The ocean is taking back land
Belgiorno and Bourbeau live with water on two sides that’s expected to keep rising: their streets extend into a tidal marsh to the west, while the ocean is just two streets to the east.
“As we see sea levels rising, it’s these lower-lying areas that the ocean is taking back,” said Rayann Dionne, who works for the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance and lives in Hampton.
The land where Belgiorno and Bourbeau live once belonged to the ocean – part of a marsh that was filled in to make room for development. That process is ongoing, and as more of the marsh is filled in to make way for new condos, there are fewer places where the water can go. Belgiorno recalled a map of the marsh from around 1915: Only around 16 percent of it remains. And while the marsh would naturally migrate farther inland, pushed by the rising sea, development has limited its ability to do so.
“The marsh is probably our best protection against flooding, but we are hemming it in, we’re squeezing it, and so we’re losing that ecosystem service,” Dionne said.
The marsh acts as a sponge, absorbing water as the tides rise, but it can’t do that when it’s filled in.
“It always concerns me when they’re doing more development because all you’re doing is putting more people in harm’s way,” Dionne said.
The current residents already live with that harm, and they’re aware that sea-level rise will likely make things worse.
“Flooding makes climate change very tangible and difficult to deny,” Bassett said.
Statewide impacts of climate change
The 2022 New Hampshire Climate Assessment, published in June, documented changes that affect the entire state. Looking at data from 1901 to 2020, the report found that the state is becoming wetter and warmer, trends that are projected to continue. New Hampshire has warmed an average of 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901, the report found. How significant the future impacts are will depend on how much we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the report said, echoing consensus from the scientific community.
“Human-induced climate change is not a future problem,” said Mary Lemcke-Stampone, state climatologist and lead author of the climate assessment. “It’s not something that is far away from us. It’s already happening.”
Impacts around the state include more extreme weather events, more precipitation that comes in concentrated events that can cause flooding, less snow, and an increase in invasive species and pests, such as ticks and the Asian long-horned beetle.
The Seacoast isn’t alone in experiencing these impacts, but the region is particularly vulnerable to climate change, Stampone said. Since the 1970s, the amount of rain that falls in a given storm has increased.
“When you add those storm events to sea-level rise for the coastal regions, you have kind of a double whammy, where you have stronger storms with more rain, producing higher storm surges on top of a higher sea level,” she said.
The high-tide flooding in the Seacoast is a direct result of sea-level rise. And saltwater is now encroaching into the groundwater table farther inland, affecting water quality in coastal areas.
Stampone said the report was intended to aid adaptation efforts throughout the state. As communities consider replacing old bridges, installing new culverts, and increasing drainage, the report provides projections about how much more water they will have to contend with in the next 30 years.
Adaptation on the coast
Around five years ago, Bourbeau’s neighbors started gathering in her kitchen to talk about flooding and what they could do about it. She said the impromptu meetings drew anywhere from 30 to 40 people. In 2019, the Hampton Coastal Hazards Adaptation Team began meeting. Now, Bourbeau and Bassett both serve on that team as resident representatives, working as liaisons between residents and the town, educating their neighbors on higher ground about the impacts of flooding, and developing adaptation recommendations for the town.
In 2018, the town passed a warrant article to spend $80,000 to study flooding along Kings Highway, and in June received a $2 million grant from the state’s Critical Flood Risk Infrastructure Grant Program to retrofit a defunct sewage treatment pumping system into a storm drain system, Bassett said. Funding for those grants comes from federal pandemic aid, but the town would still need to raise at least $400,000 to complete the project, he said.
For many other adaptation efforts, residents say more study – some of which is underway – is needed. The town is updating its master plan, which will include a section on coastal resilience, and has hired a consultant to contribute recommendations on that part of the plan, according to town planner Jason Bachand.
While Bassett is hopeful the infrastructure project will alleviate the flooding to some extent, he still worries about the floods of the future when the sea level is even higher. Although local infrastructure projects can offer some relief, he said, they don’t address the underlying cause of the sea-level rise: global warming.
“It’s gonna just get worse, so we need to do something about that, which is obviously a much bigger challenge than infrastructure development in our neighborhood,” Bassett said.
This story was written by Amanda Gokee, environment and energy reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.