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Water Reporters document historic flooding

On Friday, December 23, Water Reporter Brian Beckman looked out the window from his home in Phippsburg to see the West Point Wharf flooded at high tide. That day, the combination of an astronomically high tide and strong, southeasterly winds had the potential to cause much damage to the wharf. An adjacent wharf was knocked over in similar conditions just a few years ago.

On the opposite side of Casco Bay, around the same time that Brain was looking out his window, the tide gauge in Portland measured a high tide of 13.7 feet – the fourth highest tide recorded since data collection began in 1912.

Water Reporter Brian Beckman’s photos of West Point Wharf in Phippsburg help us to visualize the tidal range. The top photo was taken at high tide during winter storm Elliott when the wharf flooded. Brian took the lower photo earlier this summer during an unusually low tide. Volunteer Water Reporters like Brian use their smartphones and the Water Reporter app to help collect observational data on Casco Bay.

Brian lost power that day, along with hundreds of thousands of others across Maine. After hunkering down for a truly dark and stormy night, he woke the next morning to see the wharf still standing in good condition. In his 39 years living at West Point, Brian says he has seen the wharf flood only a handful of times. Considering the storm in hindsight, Brain says simply, “we got lucky.”

Elsewhere in Maine the impacts of winter storm Elliot were more severe. The extent of the damage is still being assessed, though Maine’s Emergency Management Agency has stated it will likely exceed the $2.4 million threshold for federal disaster aid. Throughout the state, extensive power outages affected more than 300,000 electricity customers, sometimes for multiple days. In southern Maine, low-lying coastal towns like Saco, Wells, and Kennebunkport saw homes and businesses flood, and roads washed out.

When salt water floods coastal areas in Maine like it did in winter storm Elliott, it is usually caused by a storm tide. Storm tides occur when an astronomically high tide is pushed higher by storm surge.

Put simply: a really high tide + a big storm = a storm tide.

Water Reporters Sandy Comstock and James Maxner visited Portland Headlight in Cape Elizabeth at the height of the storm. James says that in his many years working offshore with the U.S. Coast Guard, he has never seen waves like this before. “Those were the largest seas I’ve ever seen here,” says James. “The wind speeds were so high, the rain felt like needles hitting your skin.” The strength of the storm had an impact at Portland Headlight, where many news outlets have reported the historic lighthouse sustained substantial damage from the waves and wind.

At Friends of Casco Bay, we ask volunteer Water Reporters to photograph coastal areas during astronomically high tides. These photos help document the future impacts of sea level rise. This is because high tide and flooding events that are relatively unusual today will occur more frequently as sea levels rise.

According to scientists, the storm tide of 13.7 feet recorded during winter storm Elliott only has a 2 percent chance of occurring in any year. This means a storm tide like this should occur once every 50 years.

However, as sea levels rise those odds increase dramatically. With 1 foot of sea level rise — which is expected to occur by 2050 — the annual chances of a 13.7 foot storm tide in Portland jump to 20 percent. In other words, a 13.7 foot storm tide, like winter storm Elliott’s, would likely occur once every 5 years.

At high tide during winter storm Elliott, Water Reporter Laura Rumpf captured a photo of the shack on Fisherman’s Point at Willard Beach in South Portland. Laura says she planned to walk further up the point toward the shack, but stopped when she saw other people being pushed back in her direction by the powerful winds and ocean spray. “Growing up on the water,” says Laura, “I learned early on to respect the power of the sea.” That day, wind speeds in Portland peaked at 64 miles per hour.

In 2021, Friends of Casco Bay helped pass legislation that requires Maine to plan to manage for 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and 4 feet by 2100. The amount of sea level rise in Maine may be even higher if carbon emissions are not radically reduced. Fortunately, the state has set ambitious climate action goals and is making progress toward meeting them, says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca.

“Maine is on track to become carbon neutral if we continue to quickly reduce emissions,” says Ivy. “Paired with ongoing efforts to make coastal communities and ecosystems resilient to more frequent flooding and storms, we are hopeful that the Casco Bay region and the rest of the coast will be prepared to weather future conditions as sea levels rise and storms increase in intensity.”