Wells: Sea rise is “a slow-moving catastrophe”

Wedged between sandy ocean beaches and an estuary, nearly 1,500 buildings in Wells could be inundated by 2050.

Story By | Photos By Alex MacLean | October 9, 2022

The Wells beaches are not like the rest of the Maine coast. They’re sandy, for one thing, and the water is mostly swimmable, not the stupefying cold of the rocky stretches farther east. There are lifeguards and surf shops, and colorful shanties with steps that lead, at high tide, directly to the sea.

It’s little wonder, then, that those beaches attract millions of visitors each year, who come for the scenery and the sand dunes, and who leave salted and sun-baked. And it’s little wonder that the cottages and businesses catering to those visitors have been built, over the years, as close to the surf as possible. The cure for everything is salt water, and the closer you get, the better off you’ll be.

But as it turns out, you can be too close: Even under the most conservative scenarios, nearly 1,500 buildings in Wells will be inundated by rising seas by 2050. With more than a few feet of sea-level rise, entire stretches of Wells Beach will wash into the ocean before the end of the century; already, increasingly intense, wet storms are battering houses and eroding seawalls. The state has predicted that a mere 1.6 feet of sea level rise, which scientists say is almost inevitable, will reduce Maine’s dry beach area by more than 40 percent, possibly within 30 years.

Stretches of Wells Beach are already underwater at high tide. Photo by Alex MacLean.

“The pace is speeding up,” said Nik Charov, president of Laudholm Trust, which supports the Wells Reserve. “Sea level rise — it’s analogous to being in fire country out in the West. There are communities that never thought they were in any fire danger. Now they’re not there anymore.”

What people should ask, Charov continued, is “What is important to us? What do we want to protect? What are we willing to give up?”

These are not easy questions to answer. There are the houses, of course, and the roads that are at risk; about six miles in the Wells area would be submerged under the conservative 1.6-foot scenario. The Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission recently estimated that $860 million worth of residential property in Wells — the tax revenue accounted for 38% of the town’s most recent budget – is in inundation zones. 

The Maine Climate Council predicts that the 1.6 feet of sea-level rise expected by 2050 would result in the loss of more than a million yearly visitors and $136 million in annual tourism revenue, as popular beach destinations in southern Maine disappear under the waves. Photo by Alex MacLean.

More-intense storms, flooding and higher tides are already costing Wells residents: Since 1978, property owners have filed the greatest number of flood insurance claims of any municipality in the state, according to a draft of the town’s 2022 comprehensive plan, nearly double that of York County, which had the second-highest claim number. Roughly 450 homes were damaged in flooding during the 100-year storm event of 1991, which washed over the shorefront roads of Ocean and Atlantic avenues.

Sea level rise is also expected to fully submerge the Wells Reserve estuarine lands by the end of the century and force marshy areas of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge to migrate inland. Other coastal marsh systems may not have the space to migrate, because houses, roads and businesses block their way.

Marsh surrounds Mile Road. By the end of the century, sea-level rise is projected to fully submerge the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve lands. Photo by Alex MacLean.

That’s a problem because marshes and wetlands not only provide valuable habitat but also protect against floods by acting as natural sponges, absorbing water from rain, snowmelt and floods, and then slowly releasing it back. Sea level rise, as the town’s comprehensive plan points out, will “drown salt marshes, convert salt marshes into mudflats, and convert mudflats into subtidal zones.” Shellfish beds will be smothered, and freshwater wetlands will turn brackish.

“Anybody who looks outside, who has a memory, sees the change now,” said Charov. “This is a slow-moving catastrophe.”

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Kate Cough

Story By Kate Cough

Kate Cough covers energy and the environment as a 2021 Report for America corps member. She was previously a reporter for The Ellsworth American before becoming the inaugural digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. Kate graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College.

 Photos By Alex MacLean

Photos By Alex MacLean

Pilot and photographer Alex MacLean has flown his plane over much of the United States documenting the landscape. His powerful and descriptive images provide clues to understanding the relationship between the natural and constructed environments. MacLean’s photographs have been exhibited widely in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, and are found in private, public and university collections. His headshot is courtesy pointofviewhelicopterservices.com.