With sea levels rising, a team at the University of Massachusetts Boston is researching harbor barriers to protect the city from flooding.
The team, led by Paul Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation at UMass’ School for the Environment, is weighing three harbor barrier configurations:
- The smallest would connect Logan Airport in East Boston with Castle Island in South Boston, protecting the city’s inner harbor and downtown from tidal flooding.
- The medium-sized solution is a barrier from Deer Island, in the harbor, to Quincy, which would wall off all of Boston’s neighborhoods.
- The largest of the proposed harbor barriers would protect not just Boston, but also Weymouth, Hingham, Quincy and Hull.
The UMass team has a big question to answer: Should the city start taking steps to build a barrier around the heart of the Massachusetts economy?
Or is the idea dead in the water?
If the city decides it wants to go forward, it could take decades — and untold billions of dollars — before a harbor barrier is built.
The barrier study was recommended in the city’s Climate Ready Boston report last year. The report says a barrier could work well in Boston Harbor, with its relatively shallow waters, and publicly owned land along the course of the imagined barrier.
But it would have to be done in a way that minimizes its impact on navigation and the environment.
“What I would like to learn from this project is, what are the ecological costs of such a barrier, and what would be the ecological opportunities that we could create in building such a barrier?” said UMass Boston marine biologist Lucy Lockwood.
It’s too early to say whether a barrier can be done to the satisfaction of the harbor’s advocates. But Lockwood says there’s a possibility the structures could actually encourage the ecosystem.
“How can we learn to create them such that they are a healthy, robust, resilient, functioning ecosystem,” she said, “just as if to say they were, say, a natural rocky shoreline.”
At Long Wharf downtown — one spot that already sees regular flooding during high tides — Kathy Abbott, head of the group Boston Harbor Now, says doing nothing is not an option.
“I think what we don’t want to see, now that we’ve spent $4.5 billion cleaning up the harbor and another $14.5 [billion] connecting our city back to the harbor with the Greenway, we don’t want to go backwards in terms of the water quality and the ecological health and well-being,” she said.
Abbott says that’s because the ecological improvements are the basis for the rebirth happening on the shore today.