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When is it time to Retreat from the sea?

Rhode Island is beginning to experience the first effects of sea level rise. As the risk to homes and infrastructure grows, coastal communities are wrestling with a fundamental question: should they retrench or retreat? The stakes are rising.

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Sea level rise and intensifying storms are speeding up erosion of Rhode Island’s coast. Homes, businesses and residents  are at risk in unprecedented ways. Communities are wrestling with a daunting question: when is it time to retreat from the sea. In South Kingstown, that’s a question that threatens the core identity of the town.

South Kingstown is building a seawall to protect Matunuck Beach Road from rapid erosion made worse by climate change. But just around the corner lurks a more complicated threat to this coastal community. In 30 years, South Kingstown predicts more than 300 homes will be isolated from the main roads by flooding and there’s no way to build a wall for them.

By the end of this century, sea level rise is projected to split the Rhode Island town of Warren into three pieces. Part of town might even be on a new island. But a dynamic pair of town leaders is determined not to wait for a hurricane to force the town’s hand. Instead, they’re considering a controversial proposal: voluntary buyouts for at-risk property owners.

Connect with Reporter Sofie Rudin


The year is 2100. Here’s how Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council predicts conditions along the coast will change:

  • Sea level will rise by 6 to 10 feet, flooding about 85 miles of road and 3,000 homes at high tide. Higher sea level will force marshes to migrate inland, where possible. And salt water intrusion will push the water table up, potentially damaging roads and septic systems. 
  • Tidal flooding will close roads and block storm drains an estimated 300 days each year. It will also place infrastructure facilities, including wastewater treatment plants and drinking water utilities at risk.
  • Storms will be more intense. We’ll get more rain each year, in more intense bursts. 
  • Air and water temperatures will increase, becoming more similar to current conditions in mid-Atlantic states like Virginia. Heat waves will be more intense, especially in urban centers. And the composition of our ecosystems will change, as species shift northward. 
  • Coastal erosion will accelerate, removing more sand from our beaches, and rock from our cliffs.

Take us to the year 2100, and tell a story about life in Rhode Island. Setting aside political and financial constraints, picture your best-case scenario for how the coast has changed. The purpose of this request is to spark a conversation about how we want our coast to look in the century ahead. 

Some questions to consider: 

  • What will you see when you walk along the shoreline? 
  • What will coastal cities look, sound, and feel like? How about beaches and marshes? 
  • Where will we live?
  • Where will our food, water, and power come from? And where will our waste go?
  • What role will technology play in our lives and our cities?

There are no rules about style or structure. Your response could take the form of a sci-fi story, a poem, an op-ed, an image, a musical composition, or whatever feels right. Submit your response here, or email srudin@thepublicsradio.org

Here's Are some of your ideas

exclamation icon blue

Linda Megathin

Seas rising was the mantra of our youth.
Now doddering, tottering, we look back.
Amidst life’s daily ebb and flow, we heard the lapping of seas rising,
But see it we did not.

exclamation icon yellow

Elizabeth Rush

Picture yourself sitting on a large beach blanket, sipping a Del’s lemonade. Your son stands in the tidal shoals hunting for hermit crabs. Meanwhile, your partner lazes next to you, taking advantage of their paid leave to plow through that old classic: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

exclamation icon red orange

Curt Spalding

Several times a week Callie and I turn the corner onto Narragansett Boulevard and head to a park on Stillhouse Cove.  The smells from the marsh excite her dog brain, like standing on a mountain ready to ski into a foot of powder excites mine. 

Approaching the Cove I see an old man on a bench. You know your children from a distance.  Is that Henry? 

exclamation icon blue

Ellen Winsor

My dear friend,

We were in Newport, RI for New Year’s 2100. Strolling through downtown, workers now program robots to build a beautiful 10+ foot high stone storm-surge wall along the waterfront.

How Is Sea LeveL Rise Expected To Change The Coast?

Toggle the layers of this map to visualize the potential impacts of storms and sea level rise on Rhode Island’s coast. (Click the double arrows in the upper left corner to get started.) Explore the tool further.

Credit: University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center. 

ReTreat In Action: Watch as Cottages At Roy Carpenters Beach are moved Away From the Shore


Roy Carpenter’s Beach is a community of cottages in South Kingstown. The beach here is eroding at a rate of more than 3 feet per year. Between 2014 and 2016, the community moved two rows of cottages closest to the ocean to a new road at the back of the neighborhood.

Image credit: Google Earth

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