The Great Melt at the Top of the World

Researcher Josh Jones stood on the Arctic ice and put his arm in to see how salty the water might be at Barrow, Alaska.
The Big Unchill
The Arctic ice is melting faster than ever recorded, the warmth tied to the emissions of modern life. But it is the ancient ways at the top of the world that are most at risk.
BARROW, Alaska — A mile off the coast of the continent’s northernmost city, Josh Jones gunned his four-wheeler over ridges of buckling ice and through pools of turquoise water, where normally there would be a vast sheen of ice and snow.
Escorted by an Eskimo guard toting a shotgun to protect them from roving polar bears, Jones and a fellow climate researcher were racing to retrieve scientific instruments that gauge the thickness of the ice, which they worried could be lost to the uncommonly rapid melt of the Arctic Ocean.
They were also in a race with much bigger stakes.
In previous years when making the trip out here to set up their observatory, temperatures had been so raw that Jones’s eyelids froze. On this day early last month, it was a balmy — for Barrow — 41 degrees. When they arrived at the observatory, which was surrounded by sprawling melt ponds, they stripped off their parkas and rolled up their sleeves.
Their wind turbine and other equipment had collapsed in the melting ice. They’d almost lost their all-terrain vehicle, too, when it lurched into a sinkhole and stalled in a knee-deep pool of slush.
“Not a good sign,” Jones deadpanned.
Here, as close to the top of the world as you can get in America, the signs are serious indeed: The Arctic Ocean is melting faster than at any time on record. This February, the sea ice that stretches from North America to Russia reached its lowest-known winter extent and began melting 15 days earlier than usual. That continued a three-decade trend that has seen the ocean’s ice lose about 65 percent of its mass and about half of its reach during the summer. In 20 or 30 more years, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly devoid of ice in the summer, climate scientists believe.
But the changes that are incipient here in New England are already acute in Barrow, where the average temperature has risen 3.6 degrees since 1921 — more than twice the rise of average global temperatures.
“Barrow is among the fastest-warming land areas in the world,” said Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
And the effects on the way of life here — long preserved against change by remoteness and the desperate cold — have been profound. Life as they knew it for the 4,300 who call this treeless tract of tundra 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle home is beginning to feel irretrievable.
No one knows that better than the Iñupiat Eskimos, whose ancestors first settled here 1,500 years ago and who still constitute more than half of the local population on this stark, triangular spit of land where beached whale bones litter the black gravel shore.
The Iñupiat have long survived brutal winters when the sun doesn’t rise over the snowbound city of wooden homes for two months and summers when the ground turns to spongy black mud and the sun never sets. No roads lead to Barrow from elsewhere in Alaska, so they have learned to provide for themselves.
But now they are watching as the sheets of ice that have long encased the nearby Chukchi and Beaufort seas — where they hunt seals, walruses, and whales — are melting significantly earlier and returning later than ever before. The shores off Barrow typically remained covered in ice well into July and would refreeze in October.
Melt ponds now often start forming in May, and the massive sheets now typically break up in June. Since 2002, the ocean has not frozen over in October, according to the National Weather Service.
The changing climate is having a mounting effect on men such as Harry Brower Jr., who grew up hunting bowhead whales, ringed seals, king eiders, and other prey to feed his family. The 58-year-old captain of an umiak, a traditional seal-skin whaling boat, has found he can no longer rely on lessons passed through the generations.
Hunting is such a part of the city’s history that the Iñupiat name for Barrow is Ukpeagvik, which means “the place where we hunt Snowy Owls.” But all the time-tested patterns along the North Slope of Alaska — the currents, weather patterns, ice thickness, and the timing of whale migrations, among other things — have become less predictable.
“Everything’s changing,” Brower said. “It requires us to be more observant.”
Whales now often pass through local waters earlier in the year than they used to, and Brower and his crew have had to hunt in significantly less sunlight. That has made it more dangerous to haul their umiaks to the distant edges of the ice, where they build shelters and spend weeks stalking the massive mammals. Several years ago, he said, one crew got stranded when an ice sheet broke off unexpectedly. About 40 men had to be rescued by helicopter, and they lost all of their equipment.
“If we don’t have access to the ice, we can’t hunt,” Brower said.
Harry Brower Jr., captain of a whaling boat, has found that because of climate change, he can no longer rely on hunting lessons passed through the generations.
Harry Brower Jr., captain of a whaling boat, has found that because of climate change, he can no longer rely on hunting lessons passed through the generations.
The warming has also forced local officials to do what they can to defend Barrow, where the natural forces are visible in the beached, broken fishing boats lining the shore and muted, weather-beaten homes mired in brown pools of ice melt.
Edward Itta, who served for much of the past decade as mayor of the region that includes Barrow, said the increasingly unsettled earth has destabilized roads and triggered expensive failures in water and sewer systems.
He and other residents are also concerned that the permafrost, the frozen ground underlying Barrow, is thawing at greater depths and releasing a surging amount of methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The melting earth has flooded and ruined residents’ ice cellars, which they carve out of the frozen ground, forcing them to scramble to prevent their prized stocks of whale and seal meat from spoiling.
“A lot of things we were taught don’t really apply anymore,” Itta said.
Last year, the 69-year-old was shocked when his 22-foot aluminum motorboat couldn’t make it through coastal waters and up rivers for his annual summer hunting trip. The winds — unlike anything he had experienced before — were too strong, and the rivers, whose waters are being absorbed by the thawing ground, were too shallow.
“The change is real, and we’re feeling it accelerating,” he said.
Officials have sought to protect Barrow, Alaska, which is fewer than 15 feet above sea level, by moving municipal buildings and lining the coast with berms and sandbags.
Officials have sought to protect Barrow, Alaska, which is fewer than 15 feet above sea level, by moving municipal buildings and lining the coast with berms and sandbags.
The frozen Arctic Ocean has long served as something of a heat vent for the rest of the planet, its millions of square miles of snow-covered ice reflecting sunlight back into space. But the receding ice has meant more energy is being absorbed by the open ocean, a self-reinforcing cycle that has increased sea and land temperatures, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.
The warming has resulted in the surrounding tundra greening with a proliferation of lichens and shrubs. Walruses and polar bears are losing the icy habitat where they have always hunted, while migration patterns of marine life and some seabirds are also shifting.
Several miles offshore from Barrow on Cooper Island, the decimation of a colony of black guillemots provides a stark example of the destruction, said George Divoky, a zoologist who has spent the past 41 summers studying the seabird colony.
With coastal waters 6 degrees warmer in recent summers than when he started his study, the number of guillemots that nest on the island has plummeted by half as they struggle to find their primary source of food, Arctic cod, which have moved farther offshore in search of cooler, ice-filled waters, he said. Now, only about half as many chicks survive as once did.
“We’re watching a disaster unfolding,” Divoky said while waiting last month for a helicopter to ferry him the few miles from Barrow to the island because it was no longer safe to travel by snowmobile over the melting ice.
When he finally made it to the island, he found the guillemots were already laying their eggs — earlier than in any previous year of his study.
Josh Jones worked to get his ATV out of water on the ice near Barrow, Alaska.
Josh Jones worked to get his ATV out of water on the ice near Barrow, Alaska. 
Flooding is also a growing threat in Barrow. With less of a buffer from the ice sheets, which have long kept currents in check and buffered the coast, more powerful storms and waves have become common. As a result, many of the local beaches have been eroding twice as fast as they did in the 1950s, said Anne Jensen, an archeologist at the Barrow Arctic Research Center.
“We’re seeing large amounts of land falling into the sea,” Jensen said while showing pictures in her cramped office of the eroding shore.
She worries that the city’s history, long preserved by the cold, dry conditions, is increasingly at risk. The warmer, wetter weather has accelerated the decomposition of bones, tools, and other relics of those who first settled in the area.
“We’re hitting a tipping point,” Jensen said. “Heritage that has been preserved for hundreds, if not thousands, of years is going to be lost in a matter of a few decades.”
Since Josh Jones’s team began tracking Barrow’s sea ice in 1999, the researchers have seen it thin by an average of 10 percent.
“That’s quite a big difference in such a short time,” said Andy Mahoney, a professor of geophysics who oversees the team’s research at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
The main source of melting used to be the sun beating on the ice, he said. Now, more of the melt comes from below, as the open ocean absorbs more sunlight and changing currents pulse the saltier, warmer waters of the North Atlantic through the Arctic.
As the researchers bored into the ice to take their final measurements, Mike Thomas, their guard, scanned the horizon for polar bears. Snacking on seal meat, he spoke of how years-old ice used to form towering ridges over the frozen ocean and how it was common for winter temperatures to plummet to 40 below or lower.
Jones told stories about previous trips on the ice when he had to use pliers to break the ice on a colleague’s mustache to help him breathe and how he once fell off his snowmobile into a moat of frigid water between the beach and the ice.
“It’s not something you want to repeat,” he said.
Late in the afternoon, with a sun that wouldn’t set for months still high in the sky, a cold front moved in, pelting the men with sleet. The researchers packed their equipment onto sleds and climbed back on their four-wheelers, sloshing through more melt ponds and slush on their way back to the solid ground of the beach.
Two weeks later, the ice pack melted and what remained began moving offshore — the earliest it had broken up in the past decade, according to the National Weather Service.
By the end of the month — Barrow’s warmest June on record — the remaining floes had drifted more than 10 miles out to sea, vanishing from view of the shore.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

The biggest threat to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago? Climate change

Mar-a-Lago Club, Palm Beach, Florida, in 2007.
Mar-a-Lago Club, Palm Beach, Florida, in 2007.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — In recent years, George and Izabela Buff have watched as more tides climb the sea walls, seep across the manicured greens, and creep toward the hedgerows, ever closer to their columned home.
Few places are as vulnerable to the rising seas as this tony barrier island, a narrow, 16-mile strip of sprawling estates and pampered gardens between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Worth. The advancing ocean has already cost residents here millions of dollars, and will probably exact a far greater toll in the years to come, town officials say.

An overwhelming majority of scientists attribute sea level rise to climate change, and they warn that the oceans could rise substantially in the coming decades. Yet the most influential of the island’s 8,100 residents — President-elect Donald Trump — has dismissed the threat of global warming, calling it “a hoax.”
Around Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s opulent estate here, rising sea levels are largely seen as a present danger, not a distant risk.
To defend themselves, residents have stationed powerful pumps around the island, required higher sea walls, commissioned vulnerability studies, and most recently, launched a $100 million project to reduce beach erosion.

In South Florida, scientists are warning public officials to plan for nearly 7 feet or more of sea level rise by the end of the century, a nightmare prospect that would effectively drown most of Palm Beach and make Mar-a-Lago a kind of Atlantis.
For the Buffs, who settled here after visiting regularly for three decades, the dangers of rising seas are far from hypothetical.

“It’s very real — we’re witnessing it,” said George Buff, 54, who revamped his home’s drainage system after the couple bought the property four years ago. “I’m concerned about the future of the island. I live it every day.”
The Buffs and other neighbors hope Trump recognizes the potential peril as well, especially to his crescent-shaped, Mediterranean-style villa a block away. Called Mar-a-Lago because it extends from the ocean to the lake, the landmark is especially vulnerable to the climate change the president-elect derides.
Trump bought the property for a fraction of its value in the 1980s, drew controversy when he turned it into an exclusive club, and will probably use it as something of a southern White House, as its builders originally intended.
(The property was willed to the federal government after its original owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post, died in 1973. But officials returned the property to the family less than a decade later, because the taxes and maintenance costs were too high.)
Like many of their neighbors, the Buffs have supported Trump, whom they’ve known for years, become members of his club, and even rented a home from him. But they and others who live on Woodbridge Road, which runs just north of Mar-a-Lago, insist he’s wrong about climate change.
Trump has written that climate change is a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing noncompetitive.’’ He has also said he’s “not a big believer in man-made climate change.”
Trump’s staff didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did officials at Mar-a-Lago.
By rejecting the findings of climate scientists, as well as data from satellites, melting glaciers, and tide gauges around the world, Trump is taking risks that could endanger one of the crown jewels in his real estate portfolio, not to mention the planet, his neighbors said.
“I don’t think he was given the information on the magnitude of the issue,” Buff said.
Some neighbors agreed with Trump, while others, who worry about his views and their property values, were reluctant to speak about their concerns, for fear of publicly criticizing the president-elect.
Mar-a-Lago, a 90-year-old National Historic Landmark now valued at $21 million, covers nearly 18 acres. At its lowest point near the saltwater lake, where so-called king tides already bring flooding, it’s just 4 feet above the water.
As seas rise and storms strengthen in the coming decades, the risks to the estate’s cabanas, tennis and croquet courts, and ornate ballrooms are likely to only increase.
Scientists say worst-case outcomes, such as their estimate of a 7-foot rise of the seas by century’s end, have become more likely with newer climate models, but could be avoided if the United States and other nations take strict measures to reduce carbon emissions.
Increasing carbon pollution has been steadily warming the planet, and that heat has mainly been absorbed by the oceans, causing them to expand and rise, they say.
The climate treaty signed in Paris in 2015 by the United States, China, and more than 190 other nations was meant to curb emissions and slow the rise in temperatures, which scientists say is responsible for producing 15 of the 16 warmest years on record since 2001.
But Trump has said he’ll pull out of the agreement, even though the United States has been the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases for much of the past century. He has also vowed to rescind the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s policy to reduce coal and oil emissions.
Trump has backed those pledges by selecting Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil-fuel industry and leading opponent of the Clean Power Plan, as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as secretary of state.
In South Florida, climate scientists have urged Trump to heed their findings, explaining that they live in “ground zero for climate change impacts.”
“We are gravely concerned about the impact of sea level rise on our state,” 10 of the scientists wrote in a letter to Trump last month. “The future of Florida is at stake.”
They asked him for a meeting, but he has yet to respond.
“Much of your Mar-a-Lago club could be under water in coming years because of man-made climate change,” they wrote. “Many of Florida’s waterfront properties (including yours) are vulnerable to even minor increases in sea level, because of erosion and storm surge. This is not a distant threat. Climate change is making an impact today.”
One of those scientists, Harold Wanless, chairman of the geological sciences department at the University of Miami, has warned that current climate models substantially underestimate the likely sea level rise.
They fail to take into account newer data, such as the accelerating melt of glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica, he said.
He expects seas could rise so sharply by the middle of the century that banks might no longer issue mortgages for coastal properties or require such costly flood insurance that the region’s housing market would crash.
Wanless and others noted that some parts of South Florida already experience major flooding during the highest tides, such as Miami Beach, which has invested $400 million to elevate roads, raise sea walls, and install pumps.
“I think a rise of 10 to 20 feet is more likely by the end of the century,” Wanless said. “Most of our low-lying areas will have to be abandoned, and we should be planning for that.”
He added: “I can’t imagine that Donald Trump’s properties will be viable for more than 30 years — and definitely not more than 50 years.”
Albert Hine, a professor of marine science at the University of South Florida in Tampa Bay, said that sea walls, pumps, and beach nourishment ultimately will be futile against rising seas on barriers islands like Palm Beach.
George and Izabela Buff in front of their home on Woodbridge Road.
George and Izabela Buff in front of their home on Woodbridge Road.
Even if Trump built a walled moat around Mar-a-Lago, rising seas would submerge surrounding roads, flood sewage systems, and cut electricity and freshwater supplies, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that the science has been politicized, but the truth is that the worst-case scenarios are getting worse — and more likely,” said Hine, lead author of the book “Sea Level Rise in Florida.” “For Mar-a-Lago, the best-case scenario might be that it becomes an island unto itself, like Mont Saint-Michel,” the island commune in Normandy, France, that is isolated from the mainland when the tides roll in.
On Palm Beach, where the average price of a home is nearly $4 million, town officials say they’re more interested in solutions than ideological battles.
The town has steadily added to its pumping capacity, prodded residents to raise their sea walls, and is studying ways to make the island more flood-resistant.
“We do our best to be apolitical, but we have to deal with reality,” said Thomas Bradford, the island’s town manager. “And that reality is that the seas are rising.”
Richard Kleid, president pro tem of the Town Council, said he’s very concerned about the rising seas, and hopes Trump gets the message.
“We’re going to be affected by this,” he said. “The science is real.”
Of course, not everyone is convinced.
When Jim and Kim Williams rolled down Woodbridge Road in a convertible Rolls-Royce and pulled into the driveway of the home they’re renting from Trump, they said they weren’t concerned about climate change.
“It hasn’t really crossed our minds,” said Jim Williams, 56, after his wife admonished a reporter for venturing too close to their gleaming car, noting it had just been washed.
Across the street, Jim Grau, who built his mansion 15 years ago, pointed to its sturdy concrete foundation.
“This isn’t going anywhere,” said Grau, 80. “As far as climate change, we’re all in a much better situation now that Donald has been elected.”
As Gary Talarico and his son walked up the road toward the beach, the 75-foot-tall tower of Mar-a-Lago looming over the surrounding palm trees, they expressed hope that Trump listens to those who have spent their careers studying climate change.
Failing that, they hope he considers the future of Mar-a-Lago — its aging frescoes, crystal chandeliers, elegant fountains — and what might happen to the property when his children inherit it.
“He has one of the most vulnerable pieces of real estate in the world,” said Talarico, 64. “I hope he understands that.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

The Great Wall of Boston

After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government built a 1.8-mile barrier along Lake Borgne, a lagoon of the Gulf of Mexico.
After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government built a 1.8-mile barrier along Lake Borgne, a lagoon of the Gulf of Mexico.

It would be a massive, highly controversial wall sure to cost billions of dollars. But this barrier would be much closer to home — and potentially more expensive — than the one President Trump has proposed along the Mexican border.
As rising sea levels pose a growing threat to Boston’s future, city officials are exploring the feasibility of building a vast sea barrier from Hull to Deer Island, forming a protective arc around Boston Harbor.

The idea, raised in a recent city report on the local risks of climate change, sounds like a pipe dream, a project that could rival the Big Dig in complexity and cost. It’s just one of several options, but the sea wall proposal is now under serious study by a team of some of the region’s top scientists and engineers, who recently received a major grant to pursue their research.
With forecasts indicating that Boston could experience routine flooding in the coming decades, threatening some 90,000 residents and $80 billion worth of real estate, city officials say it would be foolish not to consider aggressive action, no matter how daunting.
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“There’s a sense of urgency about these issues,” said Austin Blackmon, the city’s environmental chief. “We need to evaluate the feasibility of options like this. If it’s the best solution to protect Boston, we shouldn’t hesitate.”
Other ideas being studied as ways to protect coastal areas include building berms around city neighborhoods, diverting flood waters into canals or other designated holding areas, and requiring coastal buildings to withstand flooding.
The vast majority of climate scientists attribute rising seas to man-made greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, which they say traps heat, causing glaciers to melt and oceans to expand.

A massive barrier that would extend across the 4 miles between Hull and Deer Island, and rise at least 20 feet above harbor waters at low tide, would rank among the largest of its kind, but wouldn’t be unprecedented. Similar barriers already exist, or are being built, off the coasts of New Orleans; Venice; and Rotterdam.
Like those barriers, Boston’s sea wall wouldn’t be a dam. It would have openings large enough for ships to pass through, but with gates that would close before significant storms.
In the city’s report, titled Climate Ready Boston, officials said a harborwide barrier would have two principal goals: holding back regular high tides and blunting the force of cresting waters during storms.
Narrowing the gaps between the harbor islands would reduce the amount of water that flows in and out of the harbor, effectively lowering high tides and increasing low tides. That, too, would reduce the impact of a storm surge, officials say.
At their seaside offices at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the professors who are spending the year studying the practicality of a barrier said they’re considering costs, potential environmental damage, effects on commercial shipping and fishing, and possible locations. They will also be looking at how a barrier might affect the ecology of harbor waters and marshes, the potential threat to the quality of its expensively cleaned waters, and the possible side effects of changes to natural currents.
“It’s a very complex project, with all kinds of economic, environmental, and social consequences,” said Paul Kirshen, a civil engineer and professor at the university’s School for the Environment.
Today, much of Boston’s waterfront is now only about a foot above high tide, he said. Within 30 years, large sections of the city could experience regular sunny-day flooding, when high tides inundate coastal areas.
‘If we’re going to build it, we should have something in place by 2050. That’s why we need to be considering this now.’
Paul Kirshen, UMass Boston professor, on potential of a sea wall being built in Boston Harbor 
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“If we’re going to build it, we should have something in place by 2050,” Kirshen said. “That’s why we need to be considering this now.”
The report recommends that the city brace for sea levels to be at least 1½ feet higher by 2050 than they were in 2000, and 3 feet higher by 2070.
But a climate report released in January by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that East Coast cities are likely to experience even higher seas than had been predicted. Without drastic reductions in greenhouse gases, the seas could rise as much as 8.2 feet by 2100, up from its previous estimate of 6.6 feet, researchers found.
“This definitely should motivate us to mitigate our emissions,” said Rebecca Herst, a senior project manager for UMass Boston’s Sustainable Solutions Lab.
The research team will also evaluate whether it makes more sense to build a significantly smaller barrier that would merely close off the inner harbor, from Castle Island to Logan Airport. That would be cheaper and easier to build but would leave much of South Boston, Dorchester, and Quincy vulnerable. They’re also considering a barrier that would loop around the Harbor Islands, ranging from Deer Island, around Long Island, to Moon Island, which juts into the harbor off Quincy.
Another option under consideration is an idea proposed by Bob Daylor, a private engineer in Boston, who has studied the issue and suggested an approach he calls the Sapphire Necklace, an homage to Frederick Law Olmsted’s ribbon of city parks called the Emerald Necklace. In his plan, the principal barrier would involve a series of dikes from Deer Island to Hull’s Telegraph Hill.
In a 2014 paper, he outlined how his barrier could be built in stages, allowing adjustments to changing conditions. The project might also provide perks, such as expanding Lovell Island, which he said would allow for additional campgrounds, hiking trails, and more pleasing views of the city.
Daylor estimated that a wall designed to seal the outer harbor during storms would cost in the “low billions of dollars” and would take about a decade to acquire all the necessary permits. His plan would in part involve dumping massive amounts of boulders into the harbor, which ranges from about 20 feet to 50 feet deep.
It would rely on submerged concrete walls and hydraulic gates that would open wide enough for shipping traffic to pass through most of the time. The wall would vary in size, depending on the depth of the water, but it would be built in a way that it could be made taller as sea levels rise.
He urged the city to take the idea seriously, noting that a 2013 World Bank report ranked Boston as the eighth most vulnerable major city in the world to property damage from rising seas, among 136 studied.
“Climate change is a big issue, and it will require big solutions,” said Daylor, a senior vice president and engineer at Tetra Tech, a California-based engineering company.
Estimating the cost of such a project is no easy feat, he and other engineers said. Hugh Roberts, an associate vice president at Arcadis, a Denver-based environmental consulting company, has worked on designing sea barriers in New Orleans and New York, and he estimated that a barrier along the outer harbor of Boston would cost in the “tens of billions of dollars, or more” and require federal as well as local funding.
“Each system requires unique infrastructure,” said Roberts, who is advising the team at UMass Boston. “It’s not like building a roadway.”
But the cost of not building a barrier could be even higher. If seas rise by 3 feet over 2000 levels, Boston would likely sustain an average of $1.4 billion a year in flooding damage, he said.
Somewhat similar projects have had relatively reasonable costs, especially compared with the Big Dig, which is estimated to have cost about $24 billion, with interest. After Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans in 2005, the federal government spent about $1.1 billion and took five years to build a 1.8-mile barrier along Lake Borgne, a lagoon of the Gulf of Mexico.
In Venice, Italians have already spent nearly $5 billion — more than twice the original cost projections — to build a 1,200-foot barrier. The barrier is designed to remain submerged until it’s needed before storms, when it can rise like a leviathan to protect the historic city from excessive flooding.
Such projects are extraordinarily complex and often controversial. The Venetian barrier was first proposed in the 1970s, but construction didn’t begin until 2003. It is finally scheduled to be completed next year.
The higher costs were caused by delays in construction, rising costs of materials, and the complicated design of navigation locks, said Giovanni Cecconi, who has overseen the barrier’s installation as director of the Venice Resilience Laboratory.
“The costs might be high in Boston, but this would be an opportunity to solve a long-term problem,” Cecconi said.
In the Netherlands, where about 20 percent of the land is below mean sea level, residents are well acquainted with the dangers of flooding. In 1953, nearly 2,000 people died during a major winter storm that sent a surge of water rushing in from the North Sea.
Since then, the country has fortified its coast with all kinds of barriers. In the 1990s, the country spent more than $700 million to extend a 66-foot coastal barrier some 600 feet across the Nieuwe Waterweg waterway to protect Rotterdam, a metropolitan area where more than a million residents live.
“We haven’t had any flooding since then,” said Martien Beek, a deputy program manager at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. “This is a solution that has proven itself, and it could work for Boston as well. All major coastal cities that have big tidal movements should be considering this.”
At UMass Boston, which received a $360,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to study the possibility of building a barrier, scientists and engineers said they recognize there are many risks of such a major project. The foundation, started by cable magnate Amos Hostetter, is one of the region’s largest philanthropies and has funded a range of climate change studies.
“This is likely to be incredibly expensive and ecologically disruptive,” said David Cash, dean of the university’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. “But if you look at the flood maps in 80 years, the danger is potentially catastrophic.”
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.