Flooding and Climate Change in New England

Jan 19, 2024

New England has experienced record levels of river and coastal flooding over the past several weeks. Our social media feeds are filled with images of vehicles, propane tanks, even entire buildings floating down rivers and coastlines. Flash flood warnings light up our phones, while news headlines inform us of which precipitation or storm surge records have been most recently surpassed.  

The January 13 storm brought Portland, Maine, its highest tide since 1978 – 14.57 feet. Nearby in South Portland, video of the historic fishing shacks at Willard Beach being washed out to sea made national news. In New Hampshire, residents in Hampton Beach had to be rescued from their homes due to flooding. Massachusetts and Connecticut also saw record high tides and coastal flooding from the storm.

Flooding destoys to white fishing shacks
Photo by Ben Tero via Portland Press Herald

As we begin to clear away debris and assess the extent of the damage, many folks are asking if these storm events are related to climate change. Is this becoming our new normal?

According to the Fifth National Climate Assessment, published by the US Global Change Research Program in 2023, the Northeast has experienced increased precipitation across all four seasons since the late 1950s. Extreme precipitation events have increased by 60%. Sea level rise and increased storm surge are putting coastal communities, where much of our population lives, at particular risk when these events occur. The report also shows that as global temperatures rise, the trend of stronger and more frequent storms is expected to continue.

All of this has many of us asking if there is anything we can do about it. You can start by finding out what climate impacts are likely where you live, what you can do to prepare for them, and how you can support emergency and resilience preparations in your community. Two places to find that information are the National Climate Assessment website and Climate.gov, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both sites offer information on climate impacts by region, as well as steps we can take at the individual and community level to combat climate change and manage the impacts that are already occurring. In the longer term, find out what climate action planning is being done in your area. Does your town or state have a climate action plan? What can you do to support that work?

At Historic New England, we are determining which of our properties are most at risk and assessing what we can do to make them more resilient. We are also investigating how our properties might help mitigate climate change, including by reducing our own carbon footprint, sustainably managing our green spaces, and finding ways to support our communities in their climate work.

Climate change and its impacts are not something we can solve individually. It will require us to come together to create more resilient communities so we can manage disaster when it strikes, and to take the steps needed to build a better future for those who come after us.

Joie Grandbois is Historic New England’s Sustainability Coordinator