Rising Seas 3: Weird weather and sea level inching up prompt Baltimore to confront future climate

This is the third in a series about Maryland’s sea level rise put together by the Capital News Service of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. It was written by graduate and undergraduate student journalists under the direction of experienced editors.

By Lauren Loricchio and Emilie Eastman

Capital News Service

Fells Point waterfront (Capital News Service)

Fells Point waterfront (Capital News Service)

In Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods, flooding is so common that many residents view it as an inevitable nuisance. Some families who have lived along the water for generations have seen dozens of floods and storm surges and have chosen to stay. But recent changes could test their resolve.

Sea levels are rising worldwide, and studies show they are rising two-to-three times faster in the Chesapeake Bay region than in most other parts of the world.  By the turn of the century, they could rise 2 to 5 feet, researchers say.

Baltimore neighborhoods would be inundated — along with the 11,700 to 13,000 houses and apartments constructed on those blocks, according to a Capital News Service analysis.

Some of Maryland’s most iconic places – Baltimore’s Fells Point and Harborplace, the historic fishing town of Crisfield, Ocean City’s boardwalk, the Dorchester County birthplace of Harriet Tubman — are at risk. The Port of Baltimore employs more than 14,000 people and indirectly generates another 100,000 jobs around the state.  And the water is the focus of much of Baltimore’s tourism.Baltimore Inner Harbor

“The waterfront has always been the harbor for the Baltimore economy from the very beginning when people first settled here, and it has continued to be the centerpiece of our economy,” said Laurie Schwartz, president of Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc.

Prized waterfront locations carry risks

But waterfront businesses and communities on the bay face serious risks in exchange for their prized location.

In 2003, the storm surge produced by Isabel caused $410 million worth of damage in Maryland, a National Weather Service report said. On Key Highway, the Baltimore Museum of Industry alone had $1 million in storm damage, as 5 feet of sewage flooded exhibits and the building’s heating and air conditioning systems.

Man looks at flooded parking lot at Annapolis City Dock (By Chesbayprogram on flickr)

Man looks at flooded parking lot at Annapolis City Dock (By Chesbayprogram on flickr)

Sea level rise isn’t the only effect of climate change that Baltimore will confront. Besides storms, scientists say, rising temperatures will cause a huge strain on the city, particularly where there is little green space to relieve the heat.

Urban heat islands — large areas of pavement absorbing heat — will affect Baltimore in a variety of ways, from more infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes to more strains on utilities that power air conditioning.

“There is absolutely no doubt that climate change is increasing temperatures…. It will put stress on the electrical grid system,” said Beth Strommen, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

From Hurricane Irene in 2011 to the swift derecho that left thousands without power last summer, severe and damaging storms create problems for governments.

Many residents may not understand that they should be preparing for climate change, said Eric Hohman, assistant Maryland state climatologist.

“It’s such a slow change that people don’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s economically necessary to start doing things now… so that you protect your future,” he said.

Under Armour from Fells Point  (by cizauskas on flickr)

Under Armour from Fells Point (by cizauskas on flickr)

Few counties have plans

Some Baltimore government agencies have begun to consider climate change. The Office of Sustainability was formed, within the planning department, to promote conservation.

But five years ago, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change issued a report urging cities and counties to “take specific action now.” So far, just four counties and the city of Annapolis have taken advantage of a federally funded state program to develop plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires cities to update their emergency plan every five years, the Baltimore Office of Sustainability website says. City officials use the plan to try to protect residents from natural disasters and other community threats, FEMA’s website says.  This year, Baltimore will incorporate climate change into the plan.

Last winter, Baltimore’s planning department created the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project, or DP3, a committee of more than 30 community leaders, business executives and government representatives who are planning the city’s approach to climate change.

“Baltimore is not going to retreat from the waterfront, but we have to acknowledge the change,” said Ken Hranicky, floodplain manager and city planner for the Baltimore Department of Planning.

Baltimore City Councilman James Kraft acknowledged that, while the city has made some progress, it needs to do more. Kraft introduced the legislation that created the city’s sustainability office.

“We’ve been working on these things but could act more aggressively than we are,” Kraft said. “Nationally, we don’t have the courage or political will to make these changes, but here at the local level we can do it.”

Human psychology not equipped for long-term risks

But addressing the issues of climate change and sea level rise is complicated.  The challenges, from educating the public to implementing the DP3 committee’s recommendations, are myriad, said Kristin Baja, who is managing the project.

“People think of climate change as a global element that they can’t control at this level,” she said.

Dr. Cindy Parker of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a member of DP3, thinks the reluctance of response may be partly psychological.

“It has to do with how our brains are wired to perceive risk,” she said. “It’s really hard to commit money to things we can’t see or are threatened by.”

Part of DP3’s goal is to find ways to make sea-level rise a concrete issue for Baltimore residents, she said.

“If we’re talking about 2100, it seems so far and advanced for people,” she said. “Talking about issues in ways that are relevant to people makes them seem more tangible.”

Baltimoreans who live on the waterfront know they have to be ready for the next big storm.

“We’re faithful sandbaggers.  Like when Superstorm Sandy came, we had our bags,” Sandy Piskor, owner of a rowhouse on Aliceanna Street in Fells Point.    “That’s just the chance we’re willing to take.”

Capital News Service reporters Tyler Weyant and Natalie Kornicks also contributed to this article.


About The Author

Len Lazarick


Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Ed

    Climate change and its cause — how much is caused by human activity versus natural forces — is open to debate. What is NOT open to debate is the fact that sea levels have been rising throughout the mid-Atlantic and some land has been sinking. That is measurable. The issue is here and it is real. Whether increasingly powerful storms are a part of the future is open to debate, but the effects of storms that do hit are changing because of the increases sea levels, sinking land and development near water. The issue is how to deal with the changes.

  2. Mustang Sally

    This article is fear based, not factual….the article did not name the study, yet the rest of the article is based on the un-named study! How can I believe any of this when the study is not revealed? These young journalists have a lot to learn. Shame on the editors and shame on Maryland reporter for printing this piece full of fear, propaganda and an obvious agenda. The climate temps have been steady for the last 16 yrs. So now, if anyone disagrees with this “Climate change agenda”, they have a psychological problem?? Get ready for the Psy-Ops!! The carbon emissions from America have been at an all time low for several years now. How about bringing some Sustainability to China or India? I’ve got an idea, lets print some truth! Wake up Folks, and take your country back.

    • lenlazarick

      the anonymous Sally wants the name of the study. How about this one http://www.mde.state.md.us/assets/document/Air/ClimateChange/Chapter5.pdf, Regardless, whether you believe in climate change, temperature rise, or what to do about it (the story makes absolutely no mention of “emissions”), the evidence point to rising water levels, and more severe storms. If you live or do business near the water, as hundreds of thousands of Marylanders do, what do you do about that. The increasing floods in Crisfield are not in someone’s imagination. So even if the glaciers, icecaps and tundra aren’t melting, we know that in Maryland the sea level is rising and the land is sinking, whether we do anything about greenhouse gases or not. Len Lazarick, editor

  3. hungrypirana

    If this series will have more chapters, then may I suggest one story acknowledging that opposing views exist? Not necessarily on climate change per se (because of scientific consensus), but whether its timing and effects can be predicted with any degree of reliability, and whose ideas to manage such effects are plausible?

    So far, this series evokes in most readers a high degree of short-term bad effects; opposing views are couched with too much bias. For example, the “…reluctance of response may be partly psychological…how our brains are wired to perceive risk.”