Climate change threatens historic harbour’s tourist industry

Climate change threatens historic harbour’s tourist industry

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The coastal city of Salem in Massachusetts is probably best known for the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century, famously turned into the play “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller. Today, Salem has more to offer than witch-fuelled tourism, though. Yearly, more than one million people visit Salem and spend about US$100 million in the city. Several years ago, local tourism officials and business owners hoped to attract more tourists by emphasising the city’s maritime history. However, Salem, and especially its harbour area, is facing significant climate risks, mainly stemming from increases in sea level rise and storm surge. These also threaten the town’s economically important tourism industry. But, Salem is committed to build climate resilience and adapt to a changing climate.

A long history

Salem Harbour, which spans a total area of 18.1 square miles, used to be one of the most important international ports in the colonies: Salem’s merchants helped in the American Revolutionary War through privateering, and by supplying gunpowder and saltpetre. The port was also famous due to international trade in the late 18th century, popular trading items included ceramics, spices, and textiles. To this day, the city’s motto recalls its past: “to the farthest ports of the rich East.” Nowadays, the harbour is a crucial part of Salem’s tourism and leisure activities. Around 8000 commercial and private vessels use the waters, including mid-size cruise ships.

Rising seas and flood risk

With the coastal town only having an elevation of eight meters and experiencing subsidence, it will come as no surprise that sea level rise and storm surge are amongst the most prominent risks Salem is facing and will face in the future. Houses, roads, docks, and even a natural gas plant that is currently being built at the harbour are confronted with significant flooding risk as a look at Climate Central’s Surging Sea map shows.

In 2014, Salem decided, together with several mitigation actions, to develop a climate adaptation plan following a vulnerability assessment. The vulnerability assessment, carried out by CDM Smith, found that Salem could experience a 157% increase in extreme heat days, a 30% increase in the likelihood of a 100-year storm, sea level rise of up to 9 feet by 2100, and storm surge of over 13 feet by 2100.

Additionally, the assessment found that already existing seawalls and tide gates were ineffective due to their age and general poor condition. Critical municipal and historic building infrastructure had been deemed potentially at risk due to seawalls that were already overtopping at some locations and causing flooding, a problem that would only get worse with increasing sea levels. On the other hand, ill-conditioned tide gates cannot prevent flood water from flowing into the harbour, which could lead to pollution incidents. These examples also highlight the importance of re-evaluating adaptation measures and adapting them to incrementally changing thresholds.

The harbour builds resilience

The climate adaptation plan contains strategic adaptation priorities which were identified following an extensive stakeholder consultation with city administrators as well as community advisors. The priorities centred mostly around critical infrastructure at risk from flooding and include such measures as repairing seawalls, upgrading and installing tidal gates, adapting the drainage system, elevating or relocating transportation infrastructure, and more.

As Jim Hight pointed out in an article last week, every port is different. Salem Harbour might not be a large container port or international trade hub (anymore), but its recreational and cultural value is a main feature of Salem’s tourism. The climate resilience of the harbour is therefore vital for the local economy, and, of course, for the people pf Salem.


Read “Ready for tomorrow: The City of Salem climate change vulnerability assessment & adaptation plan

Cover photo by National Park Service (Public Domain)

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