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The Long Island Express

Climate change alters the assumptions that we’ve built our communities around.
- Frank Lowenstein, Nature Conservancy climate scientist

As the new moon tide began to rise and the winds began to hum on September 21, 1938, no one knew that the storm barreling across the Atlantic would become legend.

Just a few hours later, coastal New England lay in ruin. Survivors of the storm of ’38 speak of shingles raining down, of families riding the waves in their rapidly disintegrating homes, of the joy at finding one lost North End fishing boat with all its crew — and the tragedy of all the others that couldn’t survive 25-foot tides and walls of water that washed away coastal communities with one violent sweep.

Seventy-five years have passed, and we await the next monster storm that could pummel our coasts, communities and forests.

As our climate recalculates in response to decades of exhaust and industrial pollution, the Atlantic is warming, and these warm seas are giving birth to stronger storms. Monster storms like the hurricane of ’38 are twice as common as they were just 30 years ago.

And rising sea levels mean that these storms deliver our coasts a double blow and intensify the need to adapt to our changing climate.

Images of distant melting glaciers and forlorn polar bears may be replaced by the immediacy of flood waters inundating Boston’s Back Bay. Last fall, coastal Massachusetts just missed Hurricane Sandy’s fury.

“It’s a changing landscape of risk,” said Frank Lowenstein, who, in recent years, has led the Conservancy’s climate adaptation efforts from his Berkshires office. “Climate change alters the assumptions that we’ve built our communities around.”

But nature is resilient: Forests, fisheries and cities can endure in the face of these storms, if we build an understanding of this new ecology of a warmer world into our conservation and community planning.

Climate change won’t have a simple solution. Rather, it’s a challenge that Nature Conservancy scientists are integrating into every decision we make.

“The work that conservationists have been doing for 60 years to improve the resilience of our natural systems is one of the major responses that climate scientists recommend,” Lowenstein said.

Creating forest reserves, protected coastal lands and free-flowing rivers allows nature to absorb some of the power of these storms.

By removing dams, rebuilding culverts and restoring oyster reefs, as we’re doing here in Massachusetts, we’re helping nature respond to a changing climate, and making natural systems more effective in reducing risks to coastal communities and the tens of thousands of people who call them home.

In 1938, an Associated Press reporter wrote that; “the greens and commons of New England will never be the same.” Whether through the drama of storms or the slow, silent creep of a shifting climate, change is inevitable — but we are not powerless.

Building Resilience

Throughout the Commonwealth, New England and the world, The Nature Conservancy is taking its collaborative, science-driven approach to ensure lasting health for lands and waters. Thanks to your support, we’re completing groundbreaking research and restoration projects that support nature’s resilience.

Demonstrating Resilience on Streams

For decades, Mitchell Brook in Whately dropped nearly 2 feet from a small culvert, blocking brook trout, salamanders and other species from long-held upstream habitat that they are programmed to reach. This year the Conservancy and Massachusetts Environmental Trust teamed up on a demonstration project, replacing the old culvert. The new culvert improves access to upstream habitat and better handles extreme rain events.

Reconnecting Rivers in Southeastern Mass

In 2005, the Whittenton Dam made national news when part of downtown Taunton was evacuated as the 170-year-old dam buckled, threatening thousands of homeowners and businesses downstream. This year, the Conservancy played a key role in removing the dam, the second one to be removed from the Mill River in two years. The work improves safety for the community during high-water events and opens habitat to river herring and other sea-run fish.

Ensuring Healthy Forests for the Long Haul

The forests of western Massachusetts form an essential link for the northern Appalachian forest chain that stretches through the Northeast to the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. The Conservancy is working with partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure a mosaic of wild and working forests here, one that is resilient in the face of storms, disease, pests and a warming climate. We recently helped add 125 acres in Becket to the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Creating a Road Map for Conservation

From the dunes of Cape Cod to the Berkshires, Massachusetts’ diverse ecosystems face a changing climate, poorly planned development, invasive species and pollution. To meet these challenges, the Conservancy and the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game have produced BioMap2. BioMap2 guides communities, state agencies and land trusts on sensible, science-based planning approaches that help ensure resilient forests, rivers, wetlands and coasts for the future.

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